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First Page: Unnamed Paranormal

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***

“Well, Sophie, you’ve been busy.” My editor placed the typed sheets on her desk and pushed her reading glasses to the top of her head, smiling in a way that suggested she wasn’t simply commenting on my productivity.

Barbara Evans was definitely fiftyish but her exact age remained a secret closely guarded by her mother and the clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. No gray, no dye. No kidding. Her eye wrinkles were laugh lines; gravity had yet to wage war on the softer parts of her body.

I made a noncommittal noise as I fooled around at the coffee station in her office at The Mag. I swore I kept this job just so I could drink her coffee. An invitation to Barbara’s office for coffee was like receiving royal honors.

“Unfortunately, I felt really inspired this week.” I tasted the coffee, a shallow sip so I didn’t scald my tongue. Carrying the mug over to her desk, I flopped into the big red leather chair across from her.

“I’ll say. These letters make, what. . . ” She shuffled through the perpetual piles on her desk until she found my column’s folder. Barbara was old school, preferring paper to electronic files. “Seven. You made the regular issue as well as the summer bonus. I’m impressed.”

Nodding, I reached for my cup. The summer bonus was a pain, if anyone asked me. However, I got paid to do it and money was a nice thing. I kept my opinion to myself.

Unfortunately, I had yet to master a passable poker face and Barbara was a champion interpreter.

“But you don’t look like someone who’s free and clear until next issue,” she said. “You look more like you expect someone to jump out at you.”

“I just. . . eh, it’s nothing.” I tried to down-play it but her assessment was dead-on, hopefully no pun intended. Her slight frown insisted she wanted a better answer and I grimaced, knowing she wouldn’t like the answer. “I’ve been thinking about Patrick.”

“Him again?” She clucked her tongue and walked around the desk. Perching on the edge, she softened her firm tone with a sympathetic look. “He needed professional help and you told him so. You did what you could.”

“I don’t feel like I did.”

“Enough. You’re not a psychiatrist. I know you like to dwell. At least dwell on something cheerful. Think about the ones you do help.”

“Thinking about the one I dropped is obsessively easier.”

“You don’t have to solve everyone’s problems, Soph. Your job is to tell people what to do while making it exciting to our readers. It’s not your job to make them listen.”

I scowled into my cup. Barbara was right. I did get overly involved with people and their problems. It was the way I’d been wired.

“What brought him up, anyway?”

“I got a letter from him yesterday,” I said.

She gave me a careful look as if she were trying to determine if our friendship would survive a phone call to Crisis Intervention. “You mean, from someone who sounds like him.”

“No, him. His handwriting, his signature.”

Barbara narrowed her eyes. “I thought you said–”

“I did.” I scooted on the slippery cushion so I could look up at her. “You saw the obituary.”

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

26 Comments

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  2. Verona St. James
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 05:15:13

    I like this. The voice is strong, and I feel like I’ve already got a sense for both characters. Writing flowed well for me too. Also you’ve got tension on the first page to hook me in.

    I’d read on. :)

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  3. sao
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 05:44:28

    Great page one. I have no criticism to offer.

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  4. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 05:59:45

    It’a good. Nicely paced, good delineation of character. I get a great mental picture of the scene.
    But – you might want to consider the scene/sequel approach. You’re writing a sequel here, not a scene. It’s a discussion scene, it doesn’t contain an inciting incident and you’re not grabbing the reader from the get-go. I’d put this further down the book and bring up the inciting incident. This is good writing, but when it’s on a bookshelf competing with other books for the reader’s attention, it needs a grabber.
    That’s if you’re a first time author or this is the first book in a series, or a one-off. If this is the second or third book in a series, then you’d have hooked enough readers to continue by now.

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  5. Tracey
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 06:25:55

    I found it boring. Two women I’ve never met are talking about a letter column. Since I don’t know who these women are and since I don’t care about the letter column, my attention started to wander pretty fast.

    It’s not badly written, mind. It just doesn’t have much of a hook, and you need one to draw in readers at the beginning. Right now, the most interesting part is at the end, and even that–getting a letter from someone allegedly dead–wasn’t unmistakeably paranormal. Right off the top of my head, I could think of at least three things that could reasonably explain the letter:

    1) The obituary was written in error. The man is supposed to be dead, and the POV character thought he was dead for some time, but he isn’t.

    2) The obituary was correct. The man wrote the letter before he died and left instructions that it be mailed to the POV character for some reason that hasn’t been revealed yet.

    3) The obituary was correct, the man wrote the letter before he died, but the letter was lost among his effects for X amount of time and has just been found and mailed/ found and hand-delivered to the POV character.

    None of this says paranormal to me. I suppose that the POV character has received a letter from a ghost, but–without knowing any more about the world–that doesn’t seem probable, or even a remote possibility. This seems like a very normal contemporary world.

    I doubt if I would read any further. It’s not badly written, as I said; it simply doesn’t capture my interest.

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  6. DS
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 06:59:34

    Because it is a paranormal I assume the man could be dead– but it feels kind of bland.

    The only thing I found jarring was flopping in a chair while holding a mug of hot coffee. Not something I would do with or without my supervisor’s presence.

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  7. Juliana Stone
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 07:06:52

    I thought the writing was very good. Voice was intriguing. I agree with Lynne. This is backstory and can be dealt with differently. Start with a bang, draw the reader in with action. You’ve got the chops for sure! Good luck with this!

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  8. Jane O
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 07:07:46

    Terrific. I would definitely pick this up.
    I’m not very fond of paranormals in general, but if this is a ghost story, I’d love it.
    Also, I have to confess that I greatly prefer openings like this to the ones that toss the reader right into the middle of action. I like getting a sense of the characters -’ which I do here -’ before they charge off.

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  9. Darlynne
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 09:08:11

    I enjoyed the writing very much, the little details about the editor, for example. I would definitely like to read more. Best of luck.

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  10. alisa
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 10:11:22

    to be fair, I loathe first person, so it has to be something really staggering to hook me in or come highly recommended by someone that knows my reading preferences well.

    For me if it’s 1st person, it has to be a bit deeper into emotional territory. Sophie seems a bit too together for a letter from a dead guy that needed psychiatric help.

    Scene where she got the letter might be more of a grabber, or have her shakier/more unnerved and the editor watching more sharply even if the description of the editor is excellent.

    This is good, but not enough to make me read further.

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  11. Lori
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 10:32:55

    I liked the writing. I liked the pacing. I liked the conversation. I wish you’d started with the letter from the dead guy and then done the rest of it.

    I would keep reading though, no doubt. The first person works for me and I like her tone. She’s likable and that’s important if I’m going to spend a book with her. She’s caring, sounds smart and sounds like she’ll have a sense of humor.

    I’m also assuming this is Paranormal Lite, a little easier on the reader than mad, bad vampires or heroines with talking swords kind of stuff.

    I’d love to see more.

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  12. Julia Sullivan
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 10:40:46

    You’re a good writer! Nice voice, strong technique.

    But if I were your editor, I would encourage you to open the book with more of a bang. Maybe with her reading the letter and being shocked?

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  13. Libbie H.
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 11:00:15

    Hello, Anonymous Writer! Thanks for giving us the opportunity to critique your work. :) Here are my thoughts, as they occur to me, reading your pages.

    1. Any time I see an author as a character, I’m on my guard. It’s used so often in fiction. This doesn’t mean I will automatically think it stinks…but it does mean I’m going to be a bit more wary and judgemental.

    2. I really like how you’ve characterized Barbara. You did it in few words, but they were all effective.

    3. I also like how you’ve revealed Sophie’s characterization through the dialogue with Barbara.

    4. I think the hook is good. You barely hint that *somebody* is “dead” with how Sophie reacts to “dead on.” And then the mention of the obituary is well played.

    I don’t normally like paranormal anything — I’m so much of a hardcore skeptic that I even have a difficult time getting into paranormal stuff in fiction. But I like the voice here and I think the writing is quality. I’d read more.

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  14. Grace
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 12:01:46

    This has me intrigued, and since I don’t much go for paranormal stuff, that’s saying something.
    I’m with those who like this kind of opening. I think the “starting with a bang” opening has been so overused that it has become tiresmely trite.
    Your characters seem real and believable, and that is the real key to a good book.

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  15. Anion
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 13:28:31

    The writing was pretty good–I don’t get any real sense of Sophie’s character from it–but I echo what the others have said. This is boring.

    Alisa made the point I would have made, which is that Sophie seems awfully calm for someone who just got a letter from a dead man–a dead man she apparently feels she failed in some way.

    My suggestion, if you really want to keep this opening as-is, is to simply add a bit of tension to it. The problem isn’t that it’s a conversation, it’s that it’s a dull conversation. Whereas if Sophie, the whole time they’re talking, is thinking about what’s in her bag/pocket, and how Barbara will react, or even wondering if Patrick-the-ghost is there watching her now, or some other person who’s playing a cruel trick on her is watching her… That adds tension to the scene and makes the reader wonder what’s going on. Through Sophie’s nervousness and possibly suspicion we already have the sense that something is happening in this story (it rounds Sophie out as a person as well). So what outwardly appears to be a normal work conversation is actually a cover for Sophie’s fears.

    You don’t have to “start with a bang,” and in fact I think lots of books don’t. The advice to do so doesn’t necessarily mean literally; it means start with tension. Give the reader the sense that something is happening, and something is about to happen.

    (I agree, though, that writer heroines–especially romance writers or advice columnists–are so overdone to me that that alone would make me put the book back on the shelf. Sorry.)

    Also, Barbara may be old-school, but I have a hard time believing that any magazine editor would be permitted to indulge herself that way. Magazines work on electronic files; layouts are done electronically, word counts are done electronically and converted to column inches electronically. The idea that a columnist would be forced to work on a typewriter…which would necessitate the magazine paying extra staff to input it to the layout system, thus possibly introducing errors which need to be checked again…just doesn’t work at all for me. Also, how often is this magazine published? “Free and clear until the next issue” implies that it’s not a monthly, since lead times are so long and even an advice columnist would already be working on the next issue by the time she hands in the column due for the current one.

    Now if Barbara insisted everyone print paper copies to give her for editing or for her files, while they emailed the finals to her assistant or whatever…it still is hard to believe (she’d seriously have to be an amazing editor to get away with that) but it doesn’t stick out so badly to me.

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  16. DM
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 15:59:44

    Let me make a suggestion.

    Replace everything you have with this:

    Today I received a letter from a deadman.

    Voila! You have a hook!

    ReplyReply

  17. BlueRose
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 22:06:55

    I liked it, and would certainly have read more, but I kept thinking as I was reading “wheres the paranormal?” – do need to tighten it up a bit but yes, liked it

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  18. Anon76
    Mar 27, 2010 @ 23:28:53

    Hmmm, I liked this opening page.

    Sure it didn’t open with a bang, but I got my hook by the end.

    Sophie not being all freaked out doesn’t bother me in the least, either. As long as that is the way you intended her. I’d expect that veneer to wear off as more facts are revealed and events occur.

    The best compliment I can give is that I forgot I was reading a sample page. I was in the story and surprised when the words came to an abrupt stop. That doesn’t happen to me often these days.

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  19. Tabby
    Mar 28, 2010 @ 01:51:28

    “Him again?” She clucked her tongue and walked around the desk. Perching on the edge, she softened her firm tone with a sympathetic look. “He needed professional help and you told him so. You did what you could.”

    “I don't feel like I did.”

    “Enough. You're not a psychiatrist. I know you like to dwell. At least dwell on something cheerful. Think about the ones you do help.”

    “Thinking about the one I dropped is obsessively easier.”

    When I read this I let out a little bit of a groan. It sounds like the story is going to be about a stupid women, running around doing stupid things that no one would ever do all because she feels guilty about something she has no reason to feel guilty about. If that’s not what’s going to be motivating your character (or even if it is) you might want to go into the guilt/I care bit a little later in the story. Then there’s a chance I’ll actually care about the character and what’s motivating her. But as it is right now all I’m thinking is “QQ more noob”–the book would not be leaving the store with me. So my advice is more action, less feelings to start off with. Good luck. :)

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  20. Joe G
    Mar 28, 2010 @ 02:55:01

    I agree that the writing is muscular and subtle. You have confidence and as a reader that’s what I respond to.

    You also have enough confidence not to have to open with the letter from the dead guy, which is fine. You know how to play with the reader’s expectations. It was a good surprise. I probably would’ve kept reading if there was more, but I like these sorts of stories.

    The problem, for me, is that the writing isn’t crackling yet. There’s nothing really going on. These two people are just… doing stuff, and then blammo with that last line we have a story.

    I mean, there are things going on in the first page, but I sort of zoned out early on and after I read that last sentence I actually had to go back and reread to try to figure out what led up to that.

    Your confidence kept me going, but it also spaced me out because nothing was really going on. I tend to do this with some writers, like, say, Stephen King–who will go on, and on, and I’ll just start skimming or zoning until I get to the zombies or the evil clown. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s difficult to be Updike or Garcia Marquez 24-7 and few can do it, but it’s probably a poor choice to make on the first page–especially if you’re not Stephen King.

    Surprise me early on with your clever turn of phrase and bore me with the glasses on her head and the typed pages later. If you’re gonna crack jokes about gravity and fiftyish women, crack away.

    I think I’ve figured it out… it’s a mood thing. The mood initially is “Just another day at the office, and then there’s a DEAD GUY SENDING ME LETTERS!!!!”

    I’m torn. I think… maybe it’s actually fine that you lulled me, and then you surprised me with a hook. But perhaps the writing could crackle even more is all. Sorry for the long comment!

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  21. Lisa Richards
    Mar 28, 2010 @ 06:30:49

    If you hadn’t told me it was an unnamed paranormal there was no other clue to indicate this. For that reason I went back and reread it twice before assuming that the advice column writer had heard from someone who was dead. Once I figured that out, it hooked me but a reader should not have to work so hard to be hooked. One thing though, I wanted to keep on reading, I didn’t want it to end.

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  22. Lucy Woodhull
    Mar 28, 2010 @ 11:43:31

    I agree with Anion 100%. I’m afraid I found the conversation boring, and I wouldn’t have finished it if it weren’t a critique kind of thing. Raise the stakes. The stakes are there (dead men tell no tales?) but not apparent until WAY at the end of the page. An opening doesn’t have to be action (in fact I’m so tired of books opening with someone running away from an unknown, but totes evil, thing that I could scream), but good conversations can crackle. Good luck!

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  23. Lura Overman Wilcox
    Mar 28, 2010 @ 12:32:39

    I wanted to read more. I was surprised when the text just ended. Then I remembered I was reading a preview.

    Your writing is wonderful, but I do have a couple of suggestions.

    Instead of being so calm as she fixes her coffee, maybe she’s a bit nervous. She sees an odd reflection in the decanter or something that spooks her and reminds her of the letter from a dead man.

    Also, I would make it clear that she sat down her coffee before flopping into the chair. I assumed she did when I was reading, but one of the previous comments made me go back and re-read that bit. Flopping into a chair while holding hot coffee = spilled coffee and a scalded lap.

    I like the main character’s voice. I think she sounds like someone with whom I would get along.

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  24. Mina Kelly
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 03:01:42

    I really liked this. It seems like it might be the cosier kind of paranormal, which we just don’t see enough of. If it’s not, then the other commenters might be right about starting with a bit more of a bang, but as it is I really liked it. You show the personalities well, you build up to the hook and there’s not melodramatic or overblown despite the subject matter. I#’d definitely read on.

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  25. Eve Paludan
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 15:42:56

    I’m a big fan of the dialogue driven romance and this one has me hooked. Great job!

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  26. AshK
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 07:41:15

    Dear Readers,

    Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to hear your thoughts. Your “big ups” really made me smile!

    There was a wealth of feedback here and I enjoyed reading each comment. Lynne Connolly–Loved the scene-sequel note and just wanted to let you know there is actually a brief prologue that contains the scene info you craved. I just left it out for the sake of word constraints. I think you’d be satisfied. =)

    Of course, that same prologue contains a paranormal element that many others wanted. Oh, the sacrifices we make for the sake of ending with a hook…

    I appreciate everyone who read the passage and left a note. Your support and your friendly crits make for a great community here. You make me proud to stand beside you and call myself a writer.

    Cheers, Ash

    ReplyReply

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