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First Page: Trespasses and Sins

Welcome to First Page Saturday. Individual authors anonymously send a first page read and critiqued by the Dear Author community of authors, readers and industry others. Anyone is welcome to comment. You may comment anonymously.

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Warning: Graphic Content

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The lamb’s blood was splattered against the wall. Its bleating shrieks of pain and surprise drowned out the crowd noise around them. The woman covered her ears to the animal’s pitiful cries. In a circle, the seven of them stood around the dying creature.

“Ladies first,” the black-haired man said, smiling at their guest. He held the lamb by the ears, pulling back its head to expose the cut throat.

She hesitated, then overcame her disgust and dove on the animal, drinking deeply of its warm blood, satiating her thirst. Only for a while. She could feel the lamb’s heartbeat fading as the blood pulsed out of its body. Not wanting to be an ungracious guest, she released her grip on the animal and stepped back.

“Thank you,” she said to the man who’d offered her a brief feast, blood dripping from the lower half of her face. He motioned to a nearby water pump.

The woman rinsed herself and gathered her belongings. She heard the men devouring the animal’s flesh now. She shuddered as their ravenous moans filled the air. It was better than the alternative, she thought.

“It will do,” said the man, seeming to read her thoughts. “It’s sustaining, but wholly unsatisfying. We’ve taken the vow, as have you.”

“Am I going in the right direction?” she asked. “How much longer do I have to go?”

“Another day’s journey, at least,” he said. “But you’re not going alone-”

“I need to keep going,” she interrupted. Thank you for your kindness.”

The group of men watched her as she headed back toward the road. The foul smell emanating from a nearby factory made her gag as she trudged on. She knew exactly where she needed to go and what she needed to do. Then she would live away from the others and wait for the time of the prophecy’s fulfillment.

She could feel the animal’s blood absorbing into what was left of her body. All too soon, she’d have to feed again. But she wouldn’t murder again. Had the animal’s blood atoned her sins? Of course not. But it felt like a cleansing anyway. Her body ached as she thought of her husband. What was left of her body could feel pain, too. She remembered it, all of it. But there were no tears.

Dry, thirsty, and determined, she pressed on. Compared to how long she’d have to wait for the redemption, the journey was relatively short. To no one in particular she said, “Forgive me.”

Several miles later, the woman smelled the fire and heard the familiar prayers. She was getting closer. Years later she’d remember what it cost her. Until then she had to keep moving through the smoke, through the smell of fear, and through the appeals to God.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

44 Comments

  1. Mina Kelly
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 04:30:16

    Ouch, started in the passive!

    The whole thing feels a little clunky. There’s a lot of bits of info, like you’re dropping hints but holding us in suspense, but there’s just too many for it to work. She needs blood, she’s trying to give it up, she’s not human, there’s a prophecy, she’s going somewhere, there’s some sort of cure, she had a husband, she believes in God… Way too much for a first page. Putting everything together, I conclue it’s a vampire who killed her husband, and as a result of her grief and guilt is looking for a cure for her condition. Which involves a lot of walking. It seems like half the plot in a single page.

    Lose a lot of that info, and make sure you keep it in the active tense. You jump through at least three separate scenes here – the sacrifice, her thoughts while she walks, and still walking several miles later – pick the most significant and hold it, at least for the first page. If it’s the lamb, the show us why this scene is important to the book – don’t skim over it to tell us what the character is thinking (sorry, but it’s telling, it’s infodumping, and it’s just not very interesting). What colour is the lamb? What sort of water pump is it? (it’s actually really hard to tell when or where you’re setting this, without that kind of detail). What are the other people like? Does she trust them? Where is this happening? Is there a risk of being found? What would the repurcussions be? That’s your intro to the character, not her internal monologue while walking – you haven’t got time to get to the monologue before losing the reader’s interest.

    Though the basic set-up is the kind of thing that might make me pick up the book from the shelf, I wouldn’t read any further than the first few paragraphs before putting it down again. I don’t know what’s going on, I haven’t been given a reason to care, and all signs point to a story that, as described here, isn’t anything new or different enough to make me plow on. Give me something to get my teeth into!

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  2. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 06:07:51

    I read the first sentence and I was done. I like a nice dark romance, but that’s a bit too much for a first look.
    I did read on, but if this was a book on the shelf, I wouldn’t have done. Agree, it’s clunky and there’s so much going on I didn’t get a feel for the heroine. The pov needs to be deeper, I think. We got the description of the lamb’s death (ugh) but not through her eyes, it was just – a description.
    Take your time, do it with a bit more of her and a bit less info. And starting a book with a lamb’s death might just be akin to starting it with killing a kitten.

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  3. Jayne
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 06:23:57

    ::covers eyes:: ouch, not exactly what I was expecting to read with my morning coffee.

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  4. reader
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 06:40:32

    I’m okay with gore, but this was just too much for me as an opener. You kinda have to lead up to this sort of bloody scene in order to draw the reader in. Doing it this way, you kind of start off with a feeling of disgust and no sympathy for anyone.

    I really could not get past the first paragraph. Sorry.

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  5. Marianne McA
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 06:46:40

    I’d agree with Lynne, the lamb’s death first thing would have made me put the book back on the shelf. I’m a wimp.

    I knew someone who had a rather horrible experience, and many months later was with her when she unexpectedly came across the body of a mouse that the cat had caught, and clearly it triggered all sorts of difficult feelings and memories.

    Where you have your heroine watching the lamb being killed, and only later have her thinking about the murder or murders, I’m wondering if it’d be possible to have her see the lamb’s death through murderer’s eyes?

    I’m not a writer, so I don’t know if that makes any sense: but I’m imagining she’d either have a stronger or a weaker reaction than a ‘normal’ member of the public – and that if the reader could view that event with her, it might give us more insight into the character. Also, from my pov, it’d make the death of the lamb easier to read, because I’m thinking less about the lamb, and more about why the heroine reacts as she does.

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  6. Fae Sutherland
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 06:47:45

    And starting a book with a lamb's death might just be akin to starting it with killing a kitten.

    My thoughts exactly. I couldn’t get past the “Oh god, they just killed a wee baby!” to manage to give a damn about the rest. If a book is going to do that, it had better be a brilliant, gripping, perfect otherwise first page or it’s doomed. This was not such a first page to recover from the initial horror the opening paragraph instilled in me. I kept going back to the poor lamb shrieking in pain and surprise.

    I think a good horror/thriller could start this way, but if I opened a romance (which I always assume the First Pages are, since DA is basically a romance blog) and saw that as the opening, I’d toss it back on the shelf with a shudder and move on. Sorry.

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  7. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 07:01:28

    I think the story has some promise, I’m curious about what would happen next, but there’s also a very big squick factor with the lamb. Unless whatever happened next was hugely fascinating, I don’t know if I’d continue to read. I’m okay with violence, but..well, like the others said, that’s a pretty extreme opening.

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  8. DS
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 07:06:17

    My original thought was inspirational urban fantasy. The death of the lamb, drinking the blood, discussing atonement, taking a vow, prophecy, the title alone. When I was a kid we used to sing a hymn “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.” Just before lunch too.

    If this was put out by one of the Christian publishers I probably wouldn’t go any further with it. It would have to be a lot subtler.

    ETA: Just noticed the title. Not subtle at all.

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  9. Kristi
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 07:13:09

    Is this an inspirational vampire story?

    If it is, that would stop be twice. I like the idea of an inspirational vampire story, however…

    While most people are used to the idea of a sacrificial lamb, throwing this out there, without the depth of POV to really make us feel like this has to be done, in this way, right now, and it is horrible, this comes off as just off-putting.

    Deepen the POV, while the death of the lamb seems like a better opening than walking, I’d go with the walking, and have her reflect on the death of the lamb while walking. That would give us enough distance to buffer the knee-jerk “you killed a little fuzzy thing.”

    I don’t know who the vampire men are, and I don’t care. I don’t know the heroine’s name, I don’t know where she is. I don’t know where she’s going. I only know why, she’s seeking redemption.

    That seems a little backward to me. When reading, I like to know the whos, whats and wheres, and wonder about the whys.

    Here’s what I would suggest. Really get deep deep deep into her mind. Have her walking, feeling disgusted with herself, but be vague about what actually happened. Have her remember the bleats of the lamb, shudder, see a bit of blood on her clothes she didn’t manage to wash off, feel how cold and clammy her damp clothing is from the old water pump. Maybe have her reflect on how hard it was to push the handle, how it was a struggle to get clean, and she still doesn’t feel clean. She’ll never feel clean, and transition into her thoughts about her husband leaving us to wonder if she is something more than normal. (A farmer could kill a lamb) Then it will make us wonder what in the heck happened to her.

    Then you’ve got to direct us toward the conflict of this story for this character. What is the point?

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  10. Juliana Stone
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 07:13:35

    I agree with Shiloh, while I found the beginning clunky, and well, sucking blood from a lamb was a little disturbing first thing in the morning, I kept reading and found myself wanting to know what the hell was coming next. This tells me the author has done her job in that respect. Good luck with this……

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  11. Leah
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 07:25:50

    I am on a thriller binge right now, so obviously a certain amt of violence doesn’t bother me, but I found the lamb’s death off-putting as well, and it made it hard to get involved in the rest of the story. I felt a bit like I was watching a documentary–at a distance, and not drawn in. The writing seemed fine to me, though–I’m probably just not your target audience.

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  12. Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 07:26:40

    We know we’re all supposed to start with a bang, but this was awfully loud for my delicate sensibilities. I continued to read—which I honestly probably would not do if I had picked this up in a store. I’m out of my comfort zone— you’ve painted a grim yet compelling picture—just not my cup of blood.

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  13. Karenna
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 07:26:58

    The gore didn’t disturb me as much as the passive voice…

    I have passive voice issues in my own stuff, and I’ve learned to really watch it. It makes it more difficult for the reader to get into the story; it’s “telling” instead of “showing”. You want to show.

    For example, take out “was” in the first sentence. It reads better, and brings the reader more into the action. (Though I suspect many readers wouldn’t want to be in that particular action…) “She could feel the lamb’s heartbeat fading…” could be just “The lamb’s heartbeat faded…” Same idea, less “telly”. One of my publishers highlights every time I use “was”, “were”, and “feel/felt”; when I take those out, the story often reads more smoothly and the writing is tighter and shows more rather than just telling the reader what’s going on.

    “The group of men watched her as she headed back toward the road.” If this is supposed to be in the woman’s POV, how does she know they’re watching her? And how did she head? Did she stride, trudge, stalk… you get the idea. Keep it in her point of view, if she is the POV character (I assume, from this excerpt, that she is, though I agree with what others have said, that it’s very hard to get a sense of her), and use descriptive words to set the scene for us.

    I think this has the potential to be an intriguing story; I would probably read on, if only to find out who this woman is and where she’s going. But it would be a much more pleasant read for me if you showed me what’s happening (active voice) instead of telling me (passive voice).

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  14. theo
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 07:52:44

    A fairly well know romance author killed a puppy in one of her stories, off the page, when the heroine was relating something in her past to the hero. Readers were very upset over it and she got a lot of mail about it. I’m only passing that along because, had I read this opening in a book I took off the shelf, I too would have tossed it back.

    I read through the rest of the entry and never got over the ugh of the opening because the heroine (if this character is in fact the Hn) didn’t care about it. There was no remorse. If she can’t care about the lamb, why should I care about her?

    There are other things. How would she know the men watched her walk away unless she was looking over her shoulder at them as she left? The ringleader tells her it’s another day’s travel, but several miles later, she hears familiar prayers. Is this where she’s going? Or is this another stop?

    What’s happened is, there is so much unnecessary information already, but it’s all incomplete so I’m trying to fill in the blanks. That’s fine as the story goes along. You don’t need to spell each little thing out. You can trust your readers. But this much work on the first page? I wouldn’t read on.

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  15. Stephanie
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 08:02:44

    The opening’s a bit too gruesome for me, especially in the morning, before caffeine. Plus, this looks like yet another urban fantasy featuring vampires–and I’ve got vampire fatigue. Pass.

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  16. Naomi
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 08:53:21

    I don’t have a huge problem with the lamb being killed, but the passive structure of the first sentence gave me pause, as did the woman not having a name. Maybe that’s just me, but if this is our POV character, I want to know what she’s called before the end of the first page. I think you’ve been deliberately vague as a way of hooking the reader’s attention, but that’s the sort of thing that can backfire easily.

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  17. AnotherLori
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 09:17:24

    I had no issues with the lamb being killed frankly, I was just not compelled by the passivity. I did like the religious overtone and frankly, if less clunky, would unquestionably keep reading.

    Take out the husband stuff, too info-dumpish and work on smoothing it out.

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  18. Leah
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 09:23:56

    I don't have a huge problem with the lamb being killed, but the passive structure of the first sentence gave me pause, as did the woman not having a name.

    That’s it. That’s what gave me that “distant observer”/anthropologist feeling. Even though we know she survives this ordeal, I didn’t get the feeling that I’d have to know her for very long. It felt like a prologue. And even in serial-killer thrillers, where the author starts with the villain going after someone, you get a name and quick set up, so that even though you know this character is disposable, you’re still hoping they’ll get away.

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  19. Anon
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 09:48:11

    The lamb's blood was splattered against the wall. Its bleating shrieks of pain and surprise drowned out the crowd noise around them.

    The subject of the first sentence is “blood.” (Lamb is adj. modifying “blood.”) The “It” of the next sentence, therefore, refers to “blood.” Blood doesn’t bleat.

    I think this sort of thing causes the “clunkiness” others are referring to. Watch your grammar!

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  20. Liz
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 10:02:50

    The gore doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that it feels gratuitous, like it’s being used for the shock factor alone, and not because it’s necessary to the story. Also, I imagine it would be pretty difficult for a lamb to bleat shrieks of anything if its throat’s been cut.

    Others have mentioned the passive voice, and I have to agree with them. When I read this, I kept thinking to myself it read more like a movie recap than anything else; I felt like I was reading about a book, and not really reading a book, if that makes any sense.

    I get the feeling you’re trying to tease the audience into reading more by not revealing pertinent information such as character’s names, context, et cetera. But for me, I was left confused, not curious. Maybe I’m just being persnickety, but I’m rarely, if ever, in the mood to wade through 300 pages of coy writing, hoping it will pay off in the end. I want to know who the protagonist is, what he or she is doing, and why, and I want to know it right off the bat.

    My biggest suggestion to you would be to immerse yourself in your protagonist, which I’m assuming is the woman. Know who she is, inside and out, and write from there. Right now, the scene is almost entirely focused on the ritual sacrifice, and not the persons taking part in it, which could be a reason so many are feeling detached from the story. I believe if you cement your point of view and write from the inside out, the issues of passiveness and fluidity will resolve themselves.

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  21. Lori S.
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 10:40:52

    Its bleating shrieks of pain and surprise drowned out the crowd noise around them.

    How could the lamb shriek with its throat slashed?

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  22. Ciar Cullen
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 11:00:19

    I think this has promise and thought with a bit of work things could be smoothed out. I would, however, move AND tone down the slaughter.

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  23. Elyssa Papa
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 11:33:32

    The killing of the lamb put me off as well; I might have been able to overcome that had I understood the heroine more but there was a disconnect between what was going on in the scene and her thoughts. But I do think that you are a strong writer and would be interested in what happens . . . except I wonder if it’s really necessary to start the story where you did since you will lose a lot of readers who won’t continue because of the gore.

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  24. Moth
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 12:26:40

    You lost me with the first sentence. And I’m not particularly squeamish about violence in books, but when you start the book with a violence quotient that high it makes me think the book will only get worse.

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  25. Darlynne
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 13:24:51

    I liked this entry and it was the sorrow of the woman that hooked me. Usually violence towards animals puts me off altogether and yet, in this instance, the sacrifice/slaying of the lamb seemed to fit. I have no idea what kind of story the author wants to tell–Christian vampires?!–but I am intrigued enough to read more, passive voice notwithstanding.

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  26. Seressia
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 14:04:23

    Would a lamb with its throat cut so deeply that its blood splashes on a wall still be able to bleat? And would they waste that much blood if it’s sustenance?

    Does 7 make a crowd? And if the men are ravenous, a lamb ain’t gonna sate that and they wouldn’t be nearly as polite. Perhaps some pushing and shoving and only the man’s power and control as leader keeps them in check?

    Can she see the blood running down the lower half of her face? (and is she really that messy an eater?)

    Can she see the men watching her as she heads back to the road? Maybe they’re watching her hungrily since they finished that lamb that quickly.

    Too much happens in this first page. What occurs here should be spread across at least three or four in order to orient the reader to the main character. Right now we are so distanced from the MC who is continuously referred to as the woman, that most of this comes off as the author telling us what’s going on instead of the MC showing us.

    Overall, I’m getting symbolism shoved down my throat, and I’d have to pass on this. Spread it out over a cople more pages, and it might work.

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  27. Tiffany Clare
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 16:47:46

    I see I’m not the only one wondering why vamps are wasting the lamb’s blood by letting it spray all over the place.

    The killing of the animal in the opening doesn’t bother me with it’s graphic-ness.

    My main gripes are those others have already mentioned. The past tense everywhere makes the reader disconnect with the story. One thing the writer can do is minimize the would’s and could’s. The story feels like it’s being told by the author not the character and overall the protagonist just doesn’t stand out on the page. As a reader I’d want to get into her head and see and feel what she’s feeling. it’s just not there quite yet. I also think the writer needs to focus on one thing/event at a time and explain it’s significance.

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  28. Fae Sutherland
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 17:08:32

    Now that I think about it, why are vamps slitting the lamb’s throat in the first place? That is, after all, what their fangs are for, to make feeding fairly neat, actually.

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  29. Ros
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 18:10:01

    The lamb's blood was splattered against the wall. Its bleating shrieks of pain and surprise drowned out the crowd noise around them.

    The subject of the first sentence is “blood.” (Lamb is adj. modifying “blood.”) The “It” of the next sentence, therefore, refers to “blood.” Blood doesn't bleat.

    Nah, the sentence structure is fine. Lamb isn’t an adjective! It’s a possessive phrase modifying the blood. Since ‘It’s’ at the start of the second sentence is also a possessive, it’s perfectly legitimate for it to refer to the lamb. And yes, there could be pairs of sentences with this kind of construction where it’s ambiguous, but not here.

    On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that surprise isn’t what the lamb is feeling. Shock, possibly. But more likely pain and fear.

    I read the title and the first couple of sentences and was moderately intrigued by the idea of a romance set in ancient Israel or some other similar culture which practiced animal sacrifice for religious purposes. But once it was clear we were in vampire land, you lost me. Way, way too icky for this reader. Though I suspect there will be some readers out there who will, um, lap this up?

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  30. JoB
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 18:10:22

    I found this beautifully written. You show great skill. Just good work. Excellent.

    That said, I wouldn’t read it because I’m a wimp.
    But that’s just me.

    I am hoping the Omniscient Narrator gets traded for Character POV
    … ?
    More than a few pages of ON would make me put the book down.

    Trying to help here …
    Two word choices to think about –

    She could feel the animal's blood absorbing into what was left of her body

    then overcame her disgust and dove on the animal,

    Further trying to help –

    You might toss in some longer sentences. I see what you’re doing with the current pacing, I think, but you could maybe tolerate two or three long complex sentences of description. They could make a nice contrast to the march of those shorter declaratives. Actually emphasize them.

    Just a thought.

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  31. Susan/DC
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 18:54:05

    Not so much the gore, but I found this confusing. Drinking the blood would indicate we’re in vampire territory, but what about the disappearing body — does that mean she’s a zombie? And the last paragraph confused me even more:

    Several miles later, the woman smelled the fire and heard the familiar prayers. She was getting closer. Years later she'd remember what it cost her. Until then she had to keep moving through the smoke, through the smell of fear, and through the appeals to God.

    The foreshadowing is clunky, as I’m not sure what “it” in “what it cost her” refers to. And since we’re told she would remember years later, does “until then” mean she had to keep moving through the smoke, etc for years?

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  32. Kat
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 19:39:58

    I liked it. I don’t need to know everything after the first page, and I’ve read much gorier stuff from bestselling authors. As for the passive voice, if we stopped pointing it out so much, I suspect it wouldn’t bother most readers. It’s not passivity per se that is supposed to be objectionable, but its effect on the story. In this case, I think highlighting the lamb’s blood by omitting who slit the lamb’s throat is probably the effect that the author was going for.

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  33. Julia Sullivan
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 23:27:27

    The “the man” and “the woman” stuff is boring. Boring.

    I am so far away, and you’re making me farther away from what should be immediacy. “The blood spattered” not “the blood was spattered.” “The lamb shrieked” not “she heard the lamb shrieking.” “She thanked them for the brief feast” not “she thanked the man who’d offered her a brief feast,” etc., etc.

    Tighten it up. If you absolutely have to keep the “the man” and “the woman” stuff, be smarter about it. “The leader” is better than “the black-haired man” and much better than “the man who’d offered her a brief feast,” and so on.

    I have tremendous vampire fatigue as well, but what I like about this idea is that you’re showing the heartache and difficulty, not glamorizing it. If there really were vampires, being a vampire would be grueling and depressing and shameful, and you’re getting that across.

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  34. Kat
    Sep 20, 2009 @ 00:37:48

    “The blood spattered” not “the blood was spattered.”

    Can I just say, there’s a subtle difference in what each of these sentences is actually conveying, and it may be slightly presumptuous to assume that the author means one if s/he, in fact, means the other.

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  35. leela
    Sep 20, 2009 @ 03:07:32

    Have to say I’d pass; I stopped reading intently after the first paragraph or so, skimmed the next two, got interrupted by real life and couldn’t think of any reason to come back and finish. Most of that, though, has to do with a simple combination: slit throat + lamb (not goat, not dog, not kitten, but LAMB) + emphasis on blood, and wow.

    I didn’t feel all choked up about baby-animal death — frankly because this early in a story, I have no reason to care yet, so I’m not emotionally investing in anything — but I did feel like I just got hit with the fifty-pound hammer o’ Religious Meaning. It’s not even ‘overtones’ of Christian symbolism, since that would imply some kind of subtlety. It felt like it was smack-dab right there, and while I’m lukewarm these days about vampires, I’m positively chilly when it comes to the whole sacrificial-religious-fallen-creatures-distant-god-mythos etc etc blather. Maybe that wasn’t the intent, but the overload of images combined with the-blood-of-the-lamb and that’s what I got from it.

    Hell, I didn’t even think ‘vampires’ — the word choices and heavy-handed foreshadowingthunking in re prophecy and times-to-come + lamb + blood + sacrifice, and my thought was: didn’t I see this in a really bad grade-B horror film already? About sixteen times? Does the next page have the wizened priest seeking the ancient text that turns out to call down the devil via a completely botched reading of Revelations, only the priest bites it in the first twenty minutes because he’s stupid enough to read the book when he’s not on holy ground? Yeah. I saw that movie. Threw popcorn. Wanted my money back.

    In sum: some readers really groove on heavy-duty (Christian) religious elements. Some don’t. And some really don’t. Judging from the plethora of devil-coming-to-earth movies over the past twenty years, I’d say there’s definitely a market out there for this sort of thing. I’m just not part of it, is all.

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  36. blabla
    Sep 20, 2009 @ 04:44:04

    Oh boy, we eat lambs, beef and chicken meat but for some reason, drinking its blood is bad! I don't know whether I should be laughing or crying. To the author, did you know in many Asian cultures, animal blood features heavily on everyday menu for the normal people? Also, I know this story says “graphic content”, but for the life of me, I could not see what was so scary about this.

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  37. DS
    Sep 20, 2009 @ 08:29:37

    Black pudding (or blood sausage) is also a very Western item.

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  38. Julia Sullivan
    Sep 20, 2009 @ 22:21:25

    Can I just say, there's a subtle difference in what each of these sentences is actually conveying, and it may be slightly presumptuous to assume that the author means one if s/he, in fact, means the other

    Well, I’m an editor as well as a writer, so I’m used to being presumptuous in that way. The opening works better when it’s more direct, in my opinion, which the author can take or leave; given all the other indirect speech in the first paragraph, I think whatever loss of accuracy (about a not-very-visually-detailed image) there might be would be well worth it.

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  39. Kat
    Sep 20, 2009 @ 22:59:23

    I think there are ways to repair the first sentence (if you think it needs repair, which I don’t) without forcing the author to change what s/he means. To me, it’s the difference between an episode of, say, CSI starting with a scene of bloodstains on the wall, as opposed to a scene where we see bloodstains suddenly splattering on the wall. Both will intrigue me enough to keep watching, but they set a different tone for the scene.

    Julia, I quoted from your post, but I suspect a lot of the commenters complaining about passive voice would have suggested the same.

    I posted a question on Twitter on how people would change that first sentence, and most replied in a similar way—i.e. remove “was”—which is a change in tense, not in voice, as far as I can tell.

    So I didn’t mean to describe you, specifically, as presumptuous, but the idea of assuming that the sentence is an easy change may be presumptuous without knowing what the author wants to convey.

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  40. DM
    Sep 21, 2009 @ 00:32:01

    The lamb's blood was splattered against the wall. Its bleating shrieks of pain and surprise drowned out the crowd noise around them.

    I think there are ways to repair the first sentence (if you think it needs repair, which I don't) without forcing the author to change what s/he means. To me, it's the difference between an episode of, say, CSI starting with a scene of bloodstains on the wall, as opposed to a scene where we see bloodstains suddenly splattering on the wall. Both will intrigue me enough to keep watching, but they set a different tone for the scene.

    The presumption Julia Sullivan is making is pretty reasonable: that the author wants to hook the reader with clear, direct prose and rich evocative images.

    The first sentence fails this task in every way.

    You bring up CSI. I’m a television writer. Television is written exactly as Julia suggests this paragraph should be. If an episode of CSI opened with the image of a blood spattered wall, the first sentence after the scene heading would be: Blood is spattered across the wall. If it opened with the blood spattering in action, then the sentence would be: Blood spatters across the wall. In no case would it open with: The lamb's blood was splattered against the wall.

    Here’s why. Sentence one provides the first image (or shot). While the blood on the wall might be that of a lamb, we don’t need to know that in the sentence describing the blood on the wall. We can’t tell what kind of blood it is just by looking at it on the wall. The image of the blood spattered wall in fact contains no lamb. Lamb belongs in the second sentence, when we should probably learn that: The lamb bleats in pain and surprise.

    Screenwriters are forced to be consummate communicators, because in the typical hour of episodic television, they must rely on 120 people they will have no direct contact with to execute the images they describe.

    Readers of fiction are in the same position as the cinematographers, costume designers, set dressers, grips etc who bring to life an hour of television. They are trying to put together a series of images in their heads that will make sense coming one after the another.

    Tone derives from the content of those images, and the point of view the author employs. The tone of the first two sentences of this selection might be described in any number of ways, but would not change if it were rewritten in clear, brisk prose. It would still be about a bleeding lamb observed from a third person point of view. You might describe the tone as bloody and grim. You wouldn’t describe it as screwball comedy, no matter how you rearranged the content of those first two sentences. You might, however, be able to conjure two evocative images in your head, and find yourself sucked into the story.

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  41. Kat
    Sep 21, 2009 @ 01:14:02

    Eh. I think we’re overanalysing the first sentence. As a reader, it tells me there’s a lamb and there’s blood on the wall. I want to know why. I’m going to read at least the next sentence.

    If an episode of CSI opened with the image of a blood spattered wall, the first sentence after the scene heading would be: Blood is spattered across the wall. If it opened with the blood spattering in action, then the sentence would be: Blood spatters across the wall. In no case would it open with: The lamb's blood was splattered against the wall.

    Yes, and the past tense (which is what the author of this First Page entry is using) of “Blood is spattered across the wall” would be “Blood was spattered across the wall”, which is what this author uses. The past tense of “Blood spatters across the wall” is “Blood spattered across the wall”, reflecting what some people are suggesting the author change it to. Slightly different, yeah? But no more or less *wrong*.

    The first sentence fails this task in every way.

    I don’t agree (mainly because it works for me so I’m in no way trying to be objective). And I don’t even agree that it needs to be rich in imagery. You could open a story with “She moved.” and it could be just as effective depending on the next few sentences. Readers generally don’t stop at the first sentence if they fail to be completely hooked in. I’ll usually read the first couple, then skim the first page unless it’s really, really good. And it doesn’t have to be really, really good for me to buy it, either.

    Of course, you can argue that the rest of the paragraph doesn’t hook you in, or the rest of the page bores you or whatever, and that’s fair enough. I do agree with some of the other suggestions that other commenters, including Julia, have made. I just find the criticism of the first sentence rather puzzling. (And I’m making the assumption that many hate it on sight because it *looks* like it’s in passive voice and they’ve been taught that passive voice is evil.)

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  42. K. Z. Snow
    Sep 21, 2009 @ 15:59:03

    First sentence . . . and done. Sorry, but it was extremely off-putting for me.

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  43. So you think you can spot the passive voice? Bet you can’t. - Book Thingo
    Oct 01, 2009 @ 08:49:32

    [...] recent First Page entry at Dear Author (Trespasses and Sins) nearly made my brain explode. The first paragraph starts thus: The lamb's blood was splattered [...]

  44. RLS
    Nov 29, 2009 @ 10:11:53

    Regardless of the writing style, which I don’t particularly care for off the cuff, I just find the whole page to be off-putting. Unless I was a reader of whatever genre this is (or it was written by an author I love who was crossing genres), I doubt I would read even through this entire page.

    Here’s why.

    First, it’s apparent that the author is trying to create a mystery (what is the vow? why is she traveling, and where to? what is the time period/setting? why do the women drink and the men eat? why is she so thirsty? or whatever the mystery is supposed to be…), but I almost feel like there’s too much I don’t know. Of course, as a reader, I want some mystery. But too much mystery, and I will put the book down. I guess it’s a balance to strike for me… and I feel this is off-balance. As I said, unless this was something that I was reading for another purpose, I would put it down.

    If it’s a vampire novel, I expect some gore, so the gore wouldn’t put me off. And I actually find it interesting that the women drink the blood and the men eat the flesh, and it’s some sort of ritual (where cleansing is involved… religious?), and God is mentioned. So I really want to be interested. But I just don’t care about the character. Well, really, any of them. In fact, in the first page, the one I care about? The lamb. I feel sorry for the lamb. If this was a story about the lamb, you hooked me. But it’s dead. So the only thing I care about on the first page dies on the first page? Then so does my reading of the book.

    If it’s a non-vampire dark romance, then I would want to know that, perhaps from the character herself. And again, I know it’s only the first page, but I’m just not sure I’m sticking around for the rest of it. Especially not the way it’s written.

    If this ritual is somehow central to the whole story, I just feel like it’s a little vague and foreshadow-y in a way that I don’t find at all intriguing. The details of the story (i.e. the questions I had about mystery… the different things we don’t know) interest me. I’d like to maybe know more about the premise. But the important thing for me is that after one page, I really don’t care about this woman at all… mostly because I don’t engage in blood-purifying rituals or take mysterious vows or travel days on foot. And so far, that’s all I know about her.

    Just imho, might want to play up the character a bit more and play down the ritual. If you hook me with a good heroine, I won’t care what kind of blood and guts come later. But I’m not hooked by the blood and guts.

    Sounds like an interesting premise. I hope the author keeps writing.

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