Adult Mainstream, Literary, Historical, Comedy, Romance – Editor Critiques

At five I never imagined what would occur in the years that followed. I believed that world revolved my sister and I. Our days were filled with endless adventure. We were only stopped by the bright yellow sun that slowly sank below the horizon, but even then our play was illuminated by the twinkling of the fireflies that flitted between us.

“Come!” She’d yell waving her arm frantically as she ran down the road. I would blindly trail behind her as she lead me towards the unknown. She’d wave me closer and point. “Look.” She would quietly whisper as she uncovered the secrets hidden behind the long leafy plants or the fallen tree.

We were unstoppable, at least until mama called from beneath the flickering porch light for us to prepare for bed. “Peter and Anya your hands and faces are covered in dirt! Go wash up before bed,” she would scold. With bowed heads we’d trudge inside towards the stairs. However, we could not hide our stifled giggles as we journeyed up the stairs pretending that we were pirates searching for a treasure or adventurers lost in the jungle. In the bathroom mirror, we’d brush our teeth until we could no longer physically hold the toothpaste in our mouths–trying not to giggle so we would not spit it across the counter.

The first line doesn’t work for me because no one imagines what’s going to happen in the future when they’re just five. “Revolved” should be “revolved around” and “world” should be “the world.” “Endless adventure” feels too generic and doesn’t give the reader anything to bite into. The description of their childhood feels pretty typical/generic without anything to really hook the reader. Rather than talking about what generally happens and summarizing their childhoods, you’d catch the reader’s interest more successfully by focusing on a problem, hook, or specific scene.

Hal had been dreading his nephew’s wedding. Seriously? Who needs seven bridesmaids, seven ushers, as well as a best man and a maid of honor? Not that there wasn’t plenty of work for the ushers. They were busy seating the four hundred guests, fast filling the pews of the Basilica in Wilmington. All three of Hal’s sons had been pressed into usher duty for their cousin, Joey.

The church could easily have been a film studio with hundreds of extras. In this case, the mother of the bride, and a highly touted, overpriced wedding planner, claimed the positions of director and producer. It didn’t help Hal’s mood any that his ex-wife, Beth, brought a date – a man his sons told him actually was involved in the movie business. Not surprising. Wilmington had been nicknamed ‘Hollywood East’ because of all the filming done in North Carolina. Hal had seen Beth and her date arrive. No way that guy’s tan isn’t fake.

Hal hung out near the main doors at the back of the church. He visited with his sons when they weren’t making tracks up and down the aisle. They were standing together during a lull in their usher duties. Theo, an architect, was pointing out several features of the Spanish Baroque style. “This church was built in the shape of a Greek cross. That high dome is perched above the spot where the two arms of the cross intersect.”

I often advise writers not to start their novels with the protagonist complaining. This immediately makes the protagonist look petty or whiny, which usually isn’t the goal of the writer. The explanation about Wilmington being “Hollywood East” doesn’t seem relevant to me. I don’t see much of a hook here. Hal is complaining about the wedding, but so what? Why does it matter that he doesn’t like the wedding? What is the deeper meaning for him? What’s his goal? I want to know why I should invest time in reading about him. That said, the writing is pretty smooth so I think you might just be starting in the wrong place.

I slowly opened my eyes. Darkness consumed my vision. A sporadic beep echoed. I reached up to touch my face… nothing. Where was I? Trapped? Alone? The jeep… That beeping noise… Chills raced down my spine. I stayed silent and listened.
A bomb ticked! Time was running out. I couldn’t get up! I couldn’t move or grab anything! The beeping sped up, racing with each ragged breath.
A faint voice spoke. I didn’t know who and couldn’t move away. Something held me down.
“It’s okay, Paul. You’re home. You’re safe.”
I jerked my head toward her voice.
“It’s okay. You’re safe,” she repeated. “You’re at University Hospital, and your family is on their way.”

Opening with the character waking up or opening their eyes is a trope and I recommend avoiding it. I’m not sure what “nothing” means after he touches his face. What did he expect to feel on his face? The opening is too disorienting for the reader to feel tension or concern. The exclamation points make this come across as middle grade and a bit cartoonish. Exclamation points are almost never used in adult fiction. This “fake out” style opening is really disliked by agents, publishers, and most readers. I don’t recommend using a dream/flashback to hook the reader. Instead, start at a more interesting point in the story.

They called themselves the Seven Soldiers. And they were the second beings made for the land of the One who Rules.

In the Beginning, there was naught. The light of the three suns did not shine, nor the light of their sisters in other realms. There was no darkness, for darkness cannot be without the light. And from the nothingness there came a Being of immense power. And He was called by His creation, Enlos, for He was alone.

Enlos created, from the Nothing, which is evil, a place, for He was alone. And in His place, this perfect realm that aligned with the stars, whose light shines of purity and memory, Enlos brought forth creatures of his making. And in His loneliness, Enlos remembered those from His origin, which is unknown and lost. So He fashioned His creation for them, they who were lost. And in their every form of, those that dwelled in the waters of His place, and those that crawled upon the soil, beneath it and above it, and those that soared in the firmaments of His breath, Enlos called them Klausos, for when He spoke they obeyed.

While I like the idea of using a biblical-type passage to introduce the novel, this is so close to the actual creation story that I’m not sure there’s enough uniqueness to keep the reader engaged. I was excited initially, waiting for an interesting twist on the creation story, but the opening doesn’t deliver the twist and so quickly becomes boring as the biblical creation story is already well known to most readers. This doesn’t come across like mainstream (as was indicated on the form). This seems more like a fantasy novel.

When it rains, the sound brings me back to thoughts of the dark, rancid basement in my childhood home. Rain always brought small puddles of water that would seep in through unseen cracks and crevices on the basement floor. Unseen, since the floor was covered with broken furniture and boxes filled with musty, old clothes and useless family treasures. After the rain stopped, it would take days for the basement to dry out, leaving behind a sickening mildewed stench. I hated that basement. I hated that house.

We lived in an old wooden shanty in a rookery in Hell’s Kitchen, on the West Side of Midtown Manhattan, in New York City. Mama said we wouldn’t have enough money to buy another house, even if we could sell it, and we couldn’t afford the rents they were asking in the area, so we were stuck there. It was an old, crumbling building; one of the few single-family houses left on that time-forgotten block of
Manhattan homes.

“Thoughts of” is unnecessary and makes the first line wordy. I would cut out the explanation of how the cracks were unseen because it isn’t needed and bloats the first paragraph. If the basement being full of junk is the important factor (rather than the water) then put more emphasis on the junk. As it is, I feel that the water is probably more important and the sentence about the junk in the basement is pulling focus away from that element. To me, a “shanty” is a shack/hut and wouldn’t have a basement. I don’t think you need to explain that they couldn’t afford to move because the reader will infer this anyway. Both paragraphs feel as if they could lose their middle sentence (the one that starts with “unseen” and the one that starts with “Mama said”).


January 30th 1786. Monday.

The moment of truth, thought General George Rogers Clark. The chiefs and warriors of the Ohio tribes filed into the council house of Fort Finney, the new army outpost at the mouth of the Great Miami river. Clark watched calmly from the commissioners’ table as the Shawnee chiefs, dressed elegantly in buckskins and wrapped in blankets against the January cold, seated themselves cross-legged on the floor in front of him, proud, scalplocks adorned with feathers, faces painted in black and vermillion, silver piercings glittering from ears and noses. The treaty of Fort Finney was finally coming to a conclusion.

Among the whites present were Major John Finney, commandant of the fort, and several of his officers and aides. A handful of interpreters and secretaries stood by to ensure everything was translated and recorded properly, and the three Commissioners appointed by Congress were there to conduct the treaty: General Richard Butler from Pennsylvania, Indian Agent of the Northern Department, Samuel Holden Parsons, a well-connected Massachusetts lawyer, and General Clark, Indian Agent from Virginia and hero of the western campaigns of the war.

It was proper that the Shawnee chiefs come first as the treaty had been arranged primarily for them. They were led by the the venerable King Moluntha, principal civil chief of the Shawnee tribes, and the chief speaker Kekewepelathy, known as Tame Hawk. Next came the principal chiefs of the Delaware and Wyandot tribes. Two dozen unruly Shawnee warriors and a small coterie of their principal women followed, seating themselves on benches against the log walls and glaring at the commissioners with contempt and suspicion. Thirty Indians all told, by Clark’s estimate, almost three for every one of the whites in the council house. Outside the walls of the fort, another four hundred warriors of the various tribes and their families awaited a sign of the Shawnee response to the treaty’s terms.

This kept my attention throughout (though I’m not including the full excerpt). The writing style is smooth and professional. I would expect the style to shift quite a bit after the prologue to help the reader stay connected to a character and immersed in the story, but so long as this prologue doesn’t drag on for too long I think it works well.

‘Crave’ stood quaintly between a bookstore and a boutique. To the passive passerby, it reeked of the overbearing smell of wealth, common to the town of Rhinevyn. The glinting window panes, all-leather upholstery, silk drapes and low-hanging lanterns added to its pompous appeal. Despite their magnificence, the windows served no purpose as curtains obscured all natural light. The walls, a pale peach by contrast, offset the artifice on display.

Tables were set in rows before an impressive phoenix sculpture. The creature, half in flight, had its majestic wings spanning the breadth of the room, while a few tail feathers molted at the base. With its mythical centerpiece, the place was more museum than restaurant.

Lucas felt cornered under the yellow light at the table, almost bound by its cheery brightness.

He glared at the cutlery and turned a deaf ear to the chatter around him. The restaurant, though upscale, was too prim for his tastes. The sort of place that attracted patrons too old and with too much money to spare. Its vibe of antiquity probably comforted the moldy old-timers sitting around him, whiling away their afternoon.

Opening with the description of a location isn’t particularly captivating. I found myself wanting to start skimming by the end of the first paragraph. What is the “smell of wealth”? I’m not exactly sure what the last line of the first paragraph means (I can’t visualize it). Your voice improves and the writing is more engaging as soon as Lucas is introduced. I’d consider introducing him first and then describing the restaurant. That will give the reader more context and more reason to care what it looks like.

I was six when I first learned jubilation and devastation would romp through my life, arms entwined like lovers.

On a chair outside my parents’ bedroom, I sat on my hands and swung my legs waiting for the sounds of the new sister I had demanded. Fater advised me to listen closely; crying would be my signal. Since dawn when I’d heard the midwife arrive, I’d left my perch three times; once to stamp my leg awake, once to go to the toilet and the third time to count flowers on the hall runner.

Just before lunchtime the doctor arrived with a big black bag, a grizzly, white beard and a stinky smell. Every so often he hustled out to the front porch, smoked a cigarette then ground it into the tiles. Fater never allowed smoking in the house and I shuddered thinking it wouldn’t be long after the doctor left before Mater would show her fury at the mess he’d made.

Immediately I assumed either the mother or baby would die. This is based on the first line but also because opening with a birth usually means there’s going to be a tragedy (sort of like how a dog in a movie always dies). I don’t love the first line. If this is the first moment she experiences both jubilation and devastation then how does she learn that it will “romp through” her entire life? She wouldn’t know that yet. I expected the third reason she left her perch to have some significance but it feels mostly like filler. The voice is strong and I’d give this a few more paragraphs to catch my interest but I’d want to see something unique pretty quickly.

Day 1

My peachy patterned kitchen floor is spotless, I cleaned it today with my new mop, a telescopic one shoplifted from Tesco yesterday. I took it with me to the toilet, slipped it down my trousers and into my boot. No one stops old ladies who walk like they have a wooden leg.
I’m bored. Sitting at the table sipping tea from this bone china tea cup in my tidy kitchen which has pale blue curtains. Maybe bored is the wrong adjective maybe the true word is deserted. I should make more of an effort. I know this. The staff keep mumbling at me saying, “you live in a home with lots of people, just get in there, talk, get to know them.”
But to what avail? I’m too old to haggle over personality traits. Too old for quid pro quo and too old to barter. Sunny Dale retirement complex. They’re all called that aren’t they, chintz curtains, sunny yellow décor, neat flower beds pasted on with boredom. At least I have my own apartment even if it isn’t my own furniture. The bedroom is just big enough for a wardrobe and dressing table. The kitchen and sitting room adjoined, advertised as ‘bijou’, which really means clean and pokey. No window in the bathroom, at least the fan works.

I like the opening hook, though this voice really doesn’t sound like an old lady. “Peachy patterned” isn’t a very clear description. “Which has pale blue curtains” feels awkwardly tacked onto the end of the second sentence of the second paragraph. That sentence is also a fragment. What does it mean to “haggle over personality traits”? What do you mean by “flower beds pasted on”? I like the voice but at the same time I find it distracting because it sounds like a thirty-year-old, but maybe that’s just me. I’d throw in some phrases or terms that would have been popular when this person was young and/or I’d describe how they aren’t like your typical elderly person to give some reasoning for the voice. Still, I’d keep reading this.

What scandal, what secrets were contained between the pages of an old journal in the top drawer of the dressing table on the other side of the room. With his unique collection across from him, and the young woman beside him in his bed, tangled in the green coverlet and tracing spirals on his chest, this was one of the rare moments John Carrier felt at ease.

“Do you know what they’ve been saying of you in town?” the woman said. Her corn-silk hair had fallen from its elegant style and draped over her shoulders like a curtain. Trixie, her name was. A riveting, spirited name for a woman of equal measure. More, a name John could not easily forget as so many men had – as men do. “They say you are quite the hermit, with fragile health and so arrogant a manner as to rival David Heath.”

“And what do you say?”

Trixie smiled, biting her bottom lip. “Whatever you want me to.”

“Between the pages of an old journal in the top drawer of the dressing table on the other side of the room” feels so specific that it comes across as a little odd. Describing hair as “like a curtain” is a cliché that I recommend avoiding. “Elegant style” strikes me as a bit vague. This kept my attention throughout (though I’m not including the full excerpt), but I would want to know something more interesting or engaging about John, his motive, or his problem very quickly to maintain interest for much longer.

“Sorry, I don’t drink.” Zita Lea Strecker, had sworn off alcohol since the death of Alex, and now she tried to scoot the sweaty beer away. Pieces of the coaster napkin smeared across the table and left an ugly mess. She picked the glass up and placed it next to Rodney’s already empty steins.
“Don’t mind if I do.” He downed his unfinished pint and started on the one he’d ordered for her. The smell of stale cigarette smoke lingered on him along with too much body spray as if he’d tried to camouflage the tobacco’s odor. His cologne had the trendy musk scent meant to fill women with desire, but it reminded her of a stinky buck in rut.
She turned from the table and stopped a waitress and asked, “Could I have a glass of water?”
The women’s blank stare said, “yeah right,” before she hurried to the next table with enough drink glasses to be worthy of her attention.

I recommend getting to the point of the scene faster. I lost interest fairly quickly because the scene feels fairly mundane. It might help to cut “sworn off alcohol since the death of Alex” and move it to its own paragraph and also provide some emotional interest/relevance so that the reader understands why they should be invested in this scene. Asking for water is mundane so I would try to add emotional meaning to this. Overall, I think you could trim this down a bit.

From what I could see, an earl whose heart fails him at age eighty did not gather enough elements for a public commotion. I had expected a crowd, but wouldn’t call thus the ten subjects and a vicar by my grandfather’s grave. The couples flocked together, clad in bedecked black velvets and silks, their dejected heads shielding the eyes away from an unaccustomed surfeit of sunlight for the winter. Three faces I knew, my grandmother and two friends. None of the others looked familiar, nor I had any notion of their reasons to attend.
The vicar recited scripture in a still, mild note, verses and philosophies heard in a hundred other services before. He was young, newly ordained, more acquainted with the corpse than the breathing man no doubt. Perhaps we shared that if I had long lost a whim to join the church. Indeed, my grandfather was made more of words than flesh, and the half hour I spent by his coffin was the friendliest we ever were in my twenty-three years.

Historical fiction is not my area of expertise nor is historically accurate English/vocabulary. With that said, “gather enough elements” read oddly to me as did “nor I had” (“nor had I” seems smoother). I think the second sentence could be clearer. “Perhaps we shared that if I had long lost a whim” doesn’t make sense to me. This kept my attention throughout, but this was a very short excerpt (only two paragraphs) so I’m not sure whether my attention would be maintained for longer.

My eyes were drawn to them. The old man. The ancient woman. Two tiny porcelain doll-like girls. And him.

Creamy caramel skin, wide-set almond eyes. His finely sculpted nose, chin, and high cheekbones made me think of royalty. My heart began to beat quickly. He was beautiful, and I had never seen anyone like him. He held his head high as if looking for someone—or something. One hand rested protectively on the shoulder of one of the little girls while the other child entwined herself around his leg. His eyes scanned the store, not allowing them to rest on anyone or anything for long. Restless. That was my first thought. Then I changed that to guarded. He was a man out of his element. A stranger. A mystery.

I sucked in my breath, knowing I was staring, but unable to look away. I rose to my toes and peered between the boxes of Brylcreem on the top shelf for a better look. No good. I slunk further down the drugstore aisle. I had never seen a man so handsome. Neither had I seen a foreign person before. What were they doing here? Where were they from? China? Japan? Or some other mysterious land perhaps.

The small, mostly white town where I had spent every day of my life since I was born twenty-eight years earlier would not be prepared for them. Nor would they be accepting.

Angry dark brown eyes suddenly met mine, breaking my trance. I gasped and forced my eyes away, fixing them on the black and white tile floor.

The voice is strong and this kept my attention throughout (though I’m not including the full excerpt here). Normally starting with character descriptions is boring, but the mysterious tone of the first paragraph and how engaged the narrator is with their appearances keeps the reader entertained and gets them invested in what these characters are like. I first thought “angry dark brown eyes” referred to someone else staring at her, but that might just be me. I would avoid “breaking my trance,” “gasped,” and “forced my eyes away” so close together as they’re all three pretty generic/expected descriptions.

No one ever set foot in this town without so much as the worms in the earth squirming with delight. When this place devours you, it does so politely, and it does so whole, not wasting a nibble before your bones get spat on the sidewalk till garbage day.

Yesterday. Garbage day was yesterday. My memory hadn’t wilted as much as I’d hoped.

A class reunion—such a pitiful excuse, but I had subjected myself to this. Mulling over the invitation and chewing my fingernails in the process, I’d packed a suitcase and driven two-hundred miles from Florence, Ohio, not knowing if it was worth this tension in my core. And so, yanked back like a carp on a hook, I felt the atmosphere all but thicken as I grew nearer, the soil most certainly shifting beneath as if to whisper to me, Welcome home, Lucy.

“Without so much” doesn’t seem like the right phrase to use in the first sentence unless I’m misunderstanding your intention. The change in tense between the first and second paragraph is awkward and I’m not sure why the tense changes. I recommend breaking up the longer sentences with some shorter simpler ones. This will help to keep the reader oriented and will make the writing smoother to read. I’m not sure what “such a pitiful excuse, but I had subjected myself to this” means exactly. “Excuse” implies she’s looking for a reason to go back to her hometown but “subjected myself” implies she doesn’t want to go back but decided to go anyway. These seem like contradictory ideas to me.

What we all saw that day belied the seriousness of what actually happened. Even though they planned it, and intended for it to happen. When it happened, we were all oblivious. There was no flash and bang. Just suddenly everything had changed, but it took time to realise this. I’ve run over it a thousand times in my mind but there was no way I could have seen it coming. You see, those four eighteen year old students in that computer science project group, built a time machine

They were sitting in my class doing trial runs when it happened. I was right there in the class, and still, none of us knew what had happened. I mean come on, who really believes a time machine would work?

The wording feels too redundant and is intentionally vague for too long. “Happened” is mentioned five times in two paragraphs. I’d cut this down to one to three. The fact that no one knew what happened is also repeated and seems especially unnecessary in the second paragraph. There’s a nice hook in there, but it takes too long to get to it.

Train, eat, pin, sleep. The only commandments that every man should abide by. Brad Magnusson used to say that there’s no reason to live if you can’t lift heavy weights. Brad Magnusson also raped hundreds of school-aged boys before the feds caught him back in the 90’s but the point still remains true.

The boys and I were benching down at the gym and I had just finished pressing four plates. The rusty barbell moved like it was made of cotton. I sat on the bench taking a sip on my gallon jug, and continued my speech, “If you can’t commit to these four basic rules, you’re a waste of oxygen for all I care.”

I like the attempt at voice, but I had to read this twice to fully “get” it. “Train” doesn’t automatically imply training at a gym (that was not the assumption I made when initially reading this) so talking about lifting heavy weights felt like a jump in subject matter. I’m not sure what “pin” means/refers to.

I’m not sure the character is coming across clearly. The mention of raping boys feels quite harsh, though I do get the joke and think it could work if the tone/voice were coming across more clearly. I actually think the two lines about Brad Magnusson would work better as the opening lines where they would feel more like a hook and wouldn’t be jarringly juxtaposed with the confusing first line.

October 1958; Pirgos, Greece

Papa is ready to go to work, but he does not go. He’s watching Mama.

My brother Ilias is ready to go, too, but he’s also watching Mama. Ilias is only eight years old, but he thinks he’s grown up because he goes to work with Papa. He even dresses the same as Papa, both of them in buttoned-up shirts tucked into brown pants held up by a braided belt. Mama and Papa say people should always be neat and clean, even if they’re only going to the fields to plant seeds or gather vegetables. That’s why Mama always mends the knees of their pants when they get the tiniest hole, and Papa ties together their shoelaces when they break so they won’t flop around loose. They are neat and handsome, especially Papa, with his thick, blond hair combed away from his face.

Usually when Ilias is ready early, he teases me by sticking his tongue out at me, but this morning he just stares at Mama with his eyebrows pulled together and his mouth turned down.

I’m not going to include the full excerpt, but this kept my attention throughout. Strong voice and subtle sense that something isn’t right. It’s clear later that the narrator is a girl, but I initially thought she was male which made it confusing when the paragraph describes “their” pants and how “they are neat and handsome” rather than using “our” and “we.” There may be no way around that (though you could say “mends our clothes” instead of “their pants”), but it’s not a major problem anyway.

Since Vivienne’d learned that her father was about to die, she wanted to run away. In turns numb or outraged, she didn’t know how to be around him. Months, it was all they had left, they could use the time to be together; to repeat old favourites or to try something new–they could argue. The deadline cut through apartment walls, leaking the air. She wanted out, just a short break, and she had to stick to her plan.

The father and daughter faced each other across a table. Both had dark locks, only his were half silver; both olive-skinned, they were nearly the same height. It was twilight and darkness thickened enough to make white glow. She dropped head down staring at a small circle. It radiated, levitated and droned, about to set off. The moment passed, everything turned grey, even a china cup.

The style is just a little bit too choppy and it makes the first paragraph a bit hard to follow. “Months, it was all they had left” is jarring and rewording it to something like, “They only had months left” makes it easier to read. “The deadline cut through apartment walls” doesn’t have any clear meaning to me. It would be nice if the physical descriptions were better tied into the paragraph because they feel a bit irrelevant and disjointed. I don’t know what the small circle is that she’s staring at which makes the last two sentences confusing.

It would be four years come August since the rabbit died on her.

This is not to imply, as the phrase once did, that Miss Peanuts Porcynalyk was pregnant back then. She was not.

Not pregnant then. Not pregnant now. Not pregnant ever.

Not even “a little pregnant” as Peanuts herself might have expressed it, though the girl had done everything she knew how, back before the rabbit died, to get “a little pregnant.”

Her lover in those days, the boy with whom she had made every conceivable effort to conceive, had been a young man named William Bartholomew Krespin. Peanuts called him her Willie B.

The voice is very strong and engaging. I would keep reading (but I’m not going to include the full excerpt). “Porcynalyk” tripped me up because it’s difficult to pronounce. It’s unclear if her name is meant to be humorous. I’m not sure why the rabbit dying has anything to do with pregnancy, which also tripped me up and prompted me to reread in case I missed something. But overall this is a strong opening.

Albany, New York 2012

We straggled into the club, black, red Irish, Vietnamese, and me. We’d never played the venue, housed in an old railroad car, outside Gloversville. Before the door shut behind me, the contrast between the snow freezing as it fell, and the overheated space gave me the sensation I existed in two places at once.

The manager aimed a dour expression at us. “I should cut what I’m paying you for starting so late.”

I surveyed the audience. All white, in plaid flannel or designer jeans. Dangerous to believe appearances told the story, yet the bartender and one of the customers at the bar spoke to Mateo in low voices, and his jaw clenched. He waved the guys toward the stage, a wooden pallet a few inches off the floor at one end of the narrow room.

“I don’t like this place, Sally.” Giang, the youngest of the band, rubbed the end of the wool scarf I’d given him for his birthday against his cheek. “The Universe wants payment for the last show. Three encores!”

“Black, red Irish, Vietnamese, and me” reads awkwardly to me. Wouldn’t a railroad car be too small for a venue? I think you could spend more time describing the location as it’s rather unusual but easy to skip over as a reader. I don’t know what you mean by “appearances told the story.” I’m not sure what to take from a customer talking to Mateo in a low voice. Shouldn’t “waved the guys” be “waved US” or is the narrator not included in the group? I’m assuming there’s a concern about racism based on their races being mentioned, but it all feels too vague to me. Your voice is very close to working, but there are several sentences that could be worded more clearly.

The harbinger of death slipped into her life on a bright April day–as she sipped sassafras tea and added fronds to her fern scrapbook. Dressed in a pink envelope, it looked like an invitation. But she knew better. In the three years since the court’s edict, she suffered contempt whenever she ventured into town. Her heart had been flung into the street for all to trample on. Whether subtle or flagrant, each turned head, each catcall, each spit of disgust crushed her heart beneath their feet. She could think of no one who would dare break the ban by extending a hand of invitation.

The Voice swirled around her.

PASTOR WEBB: I hereby call this ecclesiastical court to order. We are here today as judge and jury for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Placing her cup in the chipped saucer, Flora opened the letter. The words pierced her. “My dearest Flora,” the missive began. As she read, her pulse pounded, her temples throbbed. Tears filling her eyes, she stuffed the letter into the pink envelope and pressed it into the back of her fern book.

PASTOR WEBB: You, Flora McSwain, have been called here to be admonished by this court. The Bible says that divorce is wrong. Do you agree?

FLORA: Yes, your honor, I agree, but….

I think raising mystery about what happened to her would be more enticing to the reader than splicing in the backstory early on.

“Beneath their feet” is a tad awkward. I think her reactions to the letter could be made more original or subtle rather than relying on cliché phrases: “pulse pounded,” “temple throbbed,” “tears filling her eyes.”

Northern California, September 1884
A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck. ~ James A. Garfield

While Jinny Ashgrove waited for Fay to come dress her, she sat at the vanity in her chemise, brushing her long chestnut locks. A large window next to her dressing table let in the morning sun. The four-poster bed behind her, adorned with the finest sheets and quilts was an untidy mess. She curled her toes into the long sheepskin fur of the area rug that lay under her feet. The smell of rose, violet, bergamot, lemon, and lavender permeated her room. The family had one ladies maid for three women. Mama dressed first, then Jinny and last was Maggie, the youngest at fifteen years old.
Jinny planned to ride into town later that morning to purchase more writing supplies. Her desk drawer of paper was empty and the last pencil was down to the tail end. At twenty-two-years-old, Jinny loved to write stories and she used family, friends and even ranch hands as fodder for the narratives. Fearing dislike and disapproval of her work, she kept it locked in a chest in her room where it could be safely hidden away from people’s discerning gaze. Seven years of fictional tales were stored up under lock and key. Someday she might have the courage to send one piece to a publisher. Perhaps the Ashgrove Chronicle would print her work in the future, but for now discretion was the better part of valor in her opinion. Or she was just in a constant state of cold feet. A knock on her bedroom door interrupted the interplay of Jinny’s thoughts.

There is too much telling in the second paragraph and too much unnecessary description in the first paragraph. There’s no hook or compelling element to what’s occurring. I don’t think you’re starting the story in the right place. Look for a less mundane point to open the story, one that promises stakes or trouble or a dynamic character.

(Cornwall 18th c.)
Seventeen men drowned the night I was born. None could have predicted that a day so bright and fair could bring a night of such awful darkness. Every boat in the village was out on the water chasing the schools of pilchers far out beyond the point, their nets heavy with fish when the storm caught up with them. The wind drove the dark clouds before it towards the shore. It rattled shutters, slipped under eaves and beneath doors and everywhere it went fear crept in with it. Till every wife and mother stilled the spindle, laid down their mending, hushed the baby, stood as one and raised their eyes to the sea. Some swore after that they had seen the sea rise up and swallow their loved ones. Others claimed to have seen a fork of lightning turn the tar-sealed hulls into fiery tombs. But all were agreed on one thing, that a wave of monstrous proportions had carried my father’s boat clear into the bay and set it down halfway up the road to the church, with him clinging to the mast for dear life.

The only woman who was not there to witness this miracle was my mother. From our cottage atop the cliff she could have seen the whole thing, if she’d been able to stand. But she had passed the night cheeldin, her cries mingling with the wailing of the gulls that wheeled overhead and at the height of the storm I was brought into this world. When my father could find no trace of her at the shore fear drove him home. There was no light at the window, no supper awaited him, no crackling fire. Mother was curled up by the hearth, asleep or dead, my father didn’t know. Lying next to her was a bundle tightly wrapped in an apron, all smeared with fish guts and scales which sparkled red with the embers of the dying fire. A tiny casling not long for this world, my father thought. There being not a drop of water in the house he seized his cap and wrung it out over my forehead, making the sign of the cross as he had seen the parson do of a Sunday. The salty brine that trickled into my mouth was the first thing I ever tasted. That was how I came to be named Morgen, seaborn. It was the only baptism I ever received, Father said there was no need to do the job twice.

This kept my attention throughout. Nice job! I’d never heard the word “cheeldin” before and it was quite difficult to find the meaning online, but it seems historically accurate and probably clear enough given the context. The first two times I read this, I thought the baby was smeared with fish guts and couldn’t figure out why. Rewording that might be helpful.

15 hours straight, no rests, no breaks. The last Coke bottle had been filled up and chucked out the window a couple of hours ago. Good thing the clock had been ‘switched off’ way back when, else the union would’ve been out for blood. God, the Great fucking Victoria Desert’s bleak. I would’ve kept going even with the batteries bleeping, but a sudden blaze of headlights and a blare of horns woke me from my reverie, more literally than I would have liked. A near 20 tonne trailer doesn’t swerve too well. Forty-five heart-stopping seconds later, I’m scanning the pathetic pool of light the headlamps cast into the darkness.

The stop appears suddenly, no looming, no gradual peek over the horizon. It wasn’t there, and then it was. And it didn’t seem to fit. Out here, buildings were simple, utilitarian. Bland boxes, flat roofs, silver paint, aircon units on the sides. This was… different. The walls were rough-hewn logs from fuck-knows where, and smoke curled from the chimney poking through the pitched roof. I pulled into the truck stop, and for a moment as I stepped out of the cab I thought I saw a great swamp surrounding the shack. The smell of damp, the night chorus of frogs, the cloying heat of the tropics – a split-second and gone.

“More literally than I would have liked” seems unnecessary because I don’t see a nonliteral interpretation of what happened. It’s not initially clear that this is in present tense nor that this is in first person, so both the first instance of “I” and “I’m scanning” were jarring to me, but others might not have this issue.

This kept my attention throughout, but I’m not including the full excerpt. The voice is interesting and engaging.

Through a sticky haze, Gaius looked into the mouth of a slavering Hun. He tried to writhe away from the greasy beard only a hands width from his own head. It took all his strength to wrestle his sword arm, entangled in his belt, out from under his own body. With the hilt, he smashed at the unmoving, blank eyes. He hit flesh and the face disappeared. His head sank back onto the dry plain of Thermopylae, his heavy breathing blowing a cloud of foul-smelling dust back into his face.
He expected to die.
He was exhausted beyond measure. It was only his disgust with his own weakness that forced him to rally enough to raise himself on his elbows to find the face of the Hun lying several paces away from him, but, without a body.

I think what you’re describing is that the Hun is on top of Gaius in the first paragraph, pinning him down, but it’s not clear. There are a lot of descriptions that are unclear. His arm is entangled in his belt and under his own body? I’m struggling to visualize this and I’m also not sure how this situation would come about. Why did the face disappear? Where did the body go? Was there a disembodied head on top of him? There is too much confusion in what’s going on.

August 1892

She had him. She was sure of it. Amelia studied the young man from beneath her eyelashes. He perched on the edge of his seat, hunched forward and staring at the deck of cards on the table between them as though it were a coiled serpent. She let the weight of the moment hang for another breath, then slid the stack toward him with an abrupt little movement. He jumped. The corner of her mouth twitched, but she smothered the smile before it could emerge.

“We might try again, if you like,” she suggested, warmth and encouragement in her voice. “Perhaps a second card will reveal what the first could not.”

“I don’t–” he began, then fell silent. He swallowed hard and reached forward to cut the deck with a hand that did not quite tremble.

Amelia took the divided deck and gave the cards a final shuffle. The battered cards did speak to her, if not in the way her clients assumed. The worn edges, with their tiny nicks and creases, were as readable as labels. With the barest glance, she chose the card she wanted. A practiced flick of her fingers floated it to the top.

I’m not including the full excerpt, but this kept my attention throughout. I will say that opening with a psychic scamming a client is something I’ve seen quite a few times before, but it probably isn’t used enough to be considered a trope. That said, I’d like to see a unique twist or something original come up very soon.

“Hurry the hell up Lucia.” Reggie whispered into the air behind her. “You’ve only got a backpack.”

The leaves and the sticks crunching beneath Reggie’s boots seemed loud enough to wake the dead or at least alert Collins’ Stormtroopers that they were approaching. Her heartbeat started to skip. The last thing she and Lucia needed was to be stopped and questioned by some obedient soldier incapable of an independent thought.

“I’m coming!” Lucia ran towards Reggie. Her fast pace and heavy footsteps were not helping the sound situation.

“I guess I need to say be quiet as well.” Reggie turned to glare at her. “Let’s go. It’s almost dark and it’ll be impossible to get in undetected once they set up the perimeter.”

The first sentence of the second paragraph made me think that this was from a third character’s POV (one who is criticizing Reggie’s loudness). The use of “Stormtroopers” is confusing. I’m not sure who this is referring to or what’s going on. “I guess I need to say be quiet as well” is awkward phrasing that doesn’t have a clear tone or connotation to me (especially since Reggie was also making noise). Since this is mainstream, you’d probably create a stronger hook by giving the reader a better sense of what’s going on.

Kaylee froze in the sweltering July sun.

The courage that had carried her up to the auctioneer’s stage had evaporated in the heat of the summer day and the burning stares of the auction crowd. It had taken her voice with it, abandoning her to a stillness that amplified every ragged breath she managed to squeeze into her tight chest.

Rivulets of sweat ran down between her shoulder blades and soaked their way through her red cotton top. Her summer dress hung wilted and damp, clinging to her legs like steamy shower curtains. Another minute under the fierce gaze of the crowd and the only thing remaining of her would be a puddle of melted cowardice.

The bulbous steel-head of a microphone dominated Kaylee’s burning vision. The wire ball hid half the people as she scanned the crowd. As she looked for help. For rescue.

But it wasn’t going to come. The licensing board was there and if Gerald took over for her, again, they’d never graduate her. Never let her move past the toil of apprenticeship. Never give her recognition for the work and the struggle that had gotten her that far.

The first sentence made me pause for a moment, considering whether you were trying to convey that she has some kind of medical problem that causes her to be cold even when it’s hot. Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s a major risk of confusion.

If she’s wearing a “top” then that implies she isn’t wearing a dress. I’ve never had shower curtains cling to my legs (or anything else) so the simile doesn’t work for me. Other than that, I think the voice is strong and I would keep reading.

Dan Spencer gently patted the weathered dashboard of his car as the scattered flurries predicted moments ago intensified, another annoying reminder that the holiday season had arrived. The address the precinct dispatcher gave him was just ahead, flashing red and blue lights marked the spot, making the Christmas lights in the nearby windows pale in comparison. He flicked the radio off, got out and nudged his way through the crowd of worried neighbors and curious passersby who gathered around the house, braving the frosty night air in this quiet neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia.

“Officer Ramirez, what brings you to our neck of the woods?” He managed a half smile and extended his hand.

“Detective.” He responded with a firm shake. “Haven’t seen you since…” Dan cocked an eyebrow, Ramirez pulled back his words. “I ah, transferred back from the 21st a week ago. The officer paused to clear his throat then gave him a quick summary of the events.

“The scattered flurries predicted moments ago intensified” is awkward to read. Do you mean the flurries were predicted by weathermen a moment ago? The sentence is long so I would break it up and work on clarity. “Flashing red and blue lights marked the spot” confused me initially since Dan is obviously an officer so I assumed the red and blue lights were either his or Christmas lights. The dialogue feels cliché so I recommend working on more original dialogue. The premise of the opening works because it gets the reader curious, but the writing needs some polish.

tatatata! tatatata! tatatata!

Cecilia Bosse woke with a start. ‘What…?’

tatatata! tatatata! tatatata!

Rising from the large chair she’d fallen asleep in, she blinked her eyes and steadied herself, as she turned towards the sound.

tatatata! tatatata! tatatata!

Cecilia caught her breath. ‘I know that sound!’

Fully awake now, she stepped carefully through the crowded, tall wagon, her colorful gypsy robes swirling about her. On every wall were shelves holding various items – a menagerie too diverse to focus on. And books. Lots of books. The restricted floor space was carefully arranged with small tables filled with candles and a few chairs of odd sizes.

The light struggling to fill the darkness filtered through two small windows on either side. ‘It’s late. I must have been asleep for hours…’

tatatata! tatatata! tatatata!

Reaching the door, she opened it carefully, looking up at the gingerbread-covered corner of the old wagon. Long ago, the colors would have been bright and vibrant, but with years of storage, they had begun to fade.

tatatata! tatata…

The sound stopped… and so did the bobbing head of the large, shiny black woodpecker.

Cecilia froze in the open doorway, staring like a child. The woodpecker – almost as large as a raven – looked her up and down with one swiveling, yellow eye. The bright, crimson crest on its head showed as it stopped moving its neck, transfixing Cecilia’s eyes with its own.

This seems like MG fantasy rather than adult mainstream. If this is not MG, I recommend working on a more adult style. Simple descriptions like “large chair,” “tall wagon,” “colorful gypsy robes,” “shiny black woodpecker” when used frequently can give off a middle grade vibe. “Tatatata!” also feels MG.

I struggled with how to pronounce/interpret “tatatata!” Now that I know it’s a woodpecker, it makes sense, but I found myself distracted with what type of sound this was meant to convey.

All that said, this kept my attention enough that I finished the excerpt (though I’m not including all of it here).

Ted hears the words, but they don’t mean anything. They just hit his overflowing mind and bounce off.

Pam keeps on talking. The sounds descend on him like hungry seagulls, all raucous calls and wingbeats. Every so often a phrase darts close enough to touch: “Months since the accident… Jake needs to rent that second room… can’t take care of you… would have told you himself, but…”

Ted closes his eyes. Waits for the onslaught to end.

In a low voice, Dr. Kapoor says to his sister, “Try short sentences. With pauses.”

I see a lot of potential in the writing, but it needs some polishing. The second sentence seems unnecessary because it doesn’t really clarify anything. “Wingbeats” doesn’t have a clear connotation to me. The simile as a whole doesn’t work for me (but I’m very seldom a fan of similes).

I’m not sure if Ted is emotionally overwhelmed or if he has some kind of processing disorder.

I feel disoriented reading this. Are they in a hospital? If not, why is Dr. Kapoor referred to as “Dr.” rather than by his name? I have no sense of the relationships between these characters (other than that Dr. Kapoor is Pam’s sister).