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First Page: Unnamed Paranormal

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It was summer in D.C., and even though it was close to midnight, the air was heavy with heat and the stink of the streets.   Kate's shirt stuck to the small of her back, and she fluffed it out with one hand in a half-hearted attempt to cool off.   The streetlights at either end of the alley cast everything in a yellow glow, and she stood in the shadows, her eyes focused on the unassuming door across the alley.   Jason McDaniel was inside, and she desperately needed his help.   It had taken her a week to find him, and she had to speak with him tonight.

The door opened with a crack of light, and a young man stepped out and leaned against the side of the building.   Kate frowned at the distraction.   She had fed two nights ago, but she wouldn't say no to an easy meal.   She fisted her hands, digging her nails into her palms and using the pain as a distraction from the boy's scent.   Oblivious to her presence, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter and a pack of cigarettes.   Smoke wafted up around him as he lit up and took a deep drag.   The smell drifted across to Kate, burning her newly sensitive nostrils, and she tried not to gag.   She was definitely less tempted to bite him now.

The door opened again, and this time it was Jason on the move.   Kate straightened and took a deep breath, wiping her palms on her thighs.   Jason stopped next to the smoker, his large size all but obscuring the kid from view.   She heard the rumble of a deep voice, and the smoker's answering laugh.   The pair exchanged a few more words, and the human threw his cigarette to the ground, stomping it out before heading back inside.   Jason shook his head, then turned and started to walk away.   Showtime.

Kate stepped out of the shadows as Jason approached.   If he was surprised at her sudden appearance, he didn't show it.   He stopped at arm's length and looked her up and down, apparently unimpressed if the slight rise of his brow was anything to go by.   "Yes?" he drawled.

"I need your help," Kate said.

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

31 Comments

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  2. SAO
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 06:41:48

    The writing seems pretty smooth and the page okay, although paranormal isn’t my thing.

    You start of with “It was.” Passive voice and although I am, in general, not a nitpicker, your first para was full of it, enough to make an impression on me.

    I’d recommend weaving more of that information into the action.

    Ie, In the sticky heat of the summer night. the smell of the human’s blood made Kate’s mouth water. She ignored it, plucking her damp shirt from her sticky back. The door opened. Jason. Thank God she hadn’t missed him. She’s spent a week tracking him to this dingy bar in DC. ETC.

    I do note that while I can tell this has a were-protagonist, I don’t know what the story’s about after page one. Really great page ones let us know what the major conflict of the book will be. It’s hard to do. With this one, I’m not dying to turn the page and read on, but there’s nothing to suggest the book won’t be as good as back cover copy might promise, assuming it is promising.

    Good luck.

  3. DS
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 07:59:19

    A vampire that sweats? I might be tempted to follow along a little more to see what that is about. Otherwise it just seems like another vampire story.

  4. Berinn
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 08:53:33

    This is a very descriptive scene, and starting with the weather doesn’t amp up the action. I’m not sure it’s the right starting point for your story. E.g., I wondered what she was going to do with the young man but then found out he was just part of the scenery. Perhaps the fourth paragraph that starts with “Kate stepped out…” cuts quicker to the real action. Starting with this paragraph, you’re not telling me she needs his help (like you do in the current first chapter), you’re showing me. As it stands now, I would read more than the first page to see how your story is different from the other paranormals.

    Your writing is good. Thanks for sharing, and I wish you the best!

  5. Courtney Milan
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 09:08:44

    I think the writing itself is fine (and as a note, “It was summer” is not the passive voice.)

    But the whole first page feels like throat-clearing. You’re telling us about a problem that she will need to address, once she finds Jason. It feels like you’re starting the story a hair too soon, or alternately, that you’re withholding the wrong information.

    You don’t tell the reader why she needs to find Jason. Which is fine; holding back info is a great technique to keep people reading. But in this case, you’re withholding the stakes. So I don’t know if she needs his help because she needs someone to move her refrigerator, or if she’ll die in three hours if she doesn’t find him, and that’s a material difference.

  6. j.n. duncan
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 10:39:20

    Pretty much agree with Courney here. The writing is decent. I wouldn’t be putting it down after a page because of it. You would ramp up interest immensely though if you offered the hint of the stakes. I’d turn the page hoping to find out pretty quickly what the issue was, but if I was browsing the shelves, if I didn’t see it pretty quickly, I’d probably put it back.

  7. Pat
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 11:06:56

    I thought this was really good, but then I prefer to ease into a story and for me, the pacing is just right. You do an excellent job of scene-setting here, picking out effective details. If this were a straight suspense, I would definitely continue.

    However, I don’t much care for paranormals, and I stay away from vampires, so I don’t really know if the expectations are different for that subgenre.

  8. DM
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 11:22:53

    This fails to engage, for exactly the reasons Courtney cites. No stakes, and you’re withholding the wrong info.

    Withholding is a two part technique, like planting and payoff. The second part is revelation, and it should always function as the climax or disaster of a scene, and makes an excellent act or chapter break.

  9. gwynnyd
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 12:04:40

    Verb formations with variations on “to be” are “passive verbs” as opposed to “active verbs.”

    She was watching the door. -passive verb with form of “be”

    She watched the door. – active verb

    Very easily confused with passive and active tense.

    The vampire watched the door. – active verb, active tense (the thing doing the action is the subject)

    The vampire was watching the door – passive verb, active tense

    The door was watched by the vampire. – passive verb, passive tense (the thing receiving the action is the subject)

    (Passive tense, active verb can’t be done in English. Make it an active verb -“The door watched by the vampire” – and it becomes a fragment. If you add another active or passive verb to make it whole – “The door watched by the vampire opened.” “The door watched by the vampire was opened.” – the subject of the sentence, the door, becomes the thing doing the action, opening. “Watched” has become the verb in a subordinate clause describing the door. Probably too much grammar. Sorry.)

    Both varieties of passive tend to slow down the action and distance the reader. Not that passive forms can’t be used, just that authors should use them deliberately for their effect.

    There is nothing technically “wrong” with the writing or the grammar in this opening. It just doesn’t, in my opinion, accomplish what you need it to do. You start with three uses of “was” in the first sentence and that slows it down right away. You also “tell” us, late in the paragraph and with an adverb, which are notorious mechanisms for telling and not showing, that she is desperate, but there is no “show” of this feeling. She must speak with the elusive Jason and is hiding, hungry, and desperate, but the whole first paragraph just drags and has no tension at all. We know more about the weather than anything else. Is it the weather that is important?

    I’d probably read on, for at least a chapter, but I’d be hoping it would pick up the pace.

  10. Josie
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 13:07:56

    @ gwynnyd

    Er, no.

    Passive and active are voices, not tenses or verbs.

    In the passive voice, the subject of the sentences is the recipient of the action, not the actor. The passive voice is formed with the verb to be (in any tense) plus the past participle. Eg., the book was read, is being read, will be read, etc.

    “The child was reading the book” is not passive in any sense.

  11. Chelsea
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 13:14:54

    This just doesn’t grab me. What I’m looking for when I pick up a paranormal, especially after having read so many, is uniqueness. Something that stands out about the main character. All I could tell about Kate from this was that she’s a vampire. I’d say try adding even just a sentence or two either describing her as a person or her life and what sets it apart from the average woman’s.

  12. DM
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 13:22:11

    @gwynnyd & @SAO

    Courtney is correct.

    This:

    “It was summer in D.C., and even though it was close to midnight, the air was heavy with heat and the stink of the streets.”

    is not in the passive voice.

    When the verb “to be” is used to equate two things (in this case the time of year and summer, the time of day and midnight, the air and heavy) it functions as a linking verb.

    Linking verbs are neither active nor passive.

    And @gwynnyd is mistaken here:

    “Verb formations with variations on “to be” are “passive verbs” as opposed to “active verbs.”

    She was watching the door. -passive verb with form of “be”

    She watched the door. – active verb”

    Both of these are active verbs. “She was watching” is the past progressive (or continuous) tense. When you are confused about this, remember to look at the subject and object of the sentence. In both cases “she” the subject is doing the action upon “door” the object.

  13. Aislinn Macnamara
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 13:25:03

    “She was watching the door” = past progessive tense, not passive voice.

    “She watched the door” = simple past.

    Both of those examples, however, are active voice.

    Use of was is not always indicative of passive voice, or even passive writing. Sometimes you need it. Sometimes its the best option. Should you consider other means of phrasing? Absolutely.

    But don’t let anyone tell you all forms of “to be” are passive or wrong. They are not.

  14. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 13:56:20

    First, I enjoyed the piece. I would definitely read on. I’m getting tired of stories that plunge right into the action, and a page of introduction actually can set the scene nicely, sometimes. I thought it was nicely polished, and for sure I’d read on.

    Second – the fuss about passive v active. It’s something that beginning writers do a lot, but I didn’t think it was overdone in this piece.
    For writers – if you check all your instances of using variants on the verb “to be” when you’ve done, don’t try to change them all. But if you change all the “was”es to red text, for instance, you can see at a glance if you’ve overdone it.
    Sometimes passive is a good choice. Sometimes not, but it’s your call. Overdoing anything is rarely good. It draws attention to the writing rather than the writer.

    The main problem with passive is that it distances the reader. If all the characters, objects etc are having things done to them, instead of doing, in the sentence construction, reading it can get really tedious.

    As for the first sentence – you can get rid of at least one “was” by omitting the first two words.

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
    If Orwell can get away with it, then maybe so can you.

    Alternatively:
    “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

    led to Bulwer-Lytton having a contest named after him.

  15. Suze
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 14:03:48

    It sounds promising, but it didn’t grab me either. I do like paranormals.

    I get that she needs Jason’s help because you said it twice. A little too much telling, so that there’s no suspense, or even much interest.

    Describe the actions and emotions, don’t explain them. Readers should be able to figure out the characters’ motivations without being spoon-fed.

    Also, the door opening with a crack of light kind of threw me off. If the door is opening, there’ll be more than a crack of light. The crack of light would show when the door is closed. It’s a nit-pick, I know, but it took me out of the story.

  16. DM
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 14:15:42

    @Lynne:

    I think you are spot on: good opening pages don’t need to be action packed, and the passive voice is part of the pleasing variation so important to good English prose.

    But this sample does not use the passive voice. And searching your text for forms of “to be” in order to reduce the use of the passive voice (which, yes, is a frequent problem for beginning writers) is only helpful if you can distinguish between the uses of the verb “to be.” It can be used to make a verb passive. But in this selection, it is being used to put the verb into the past continuous tense. The past continuous is not passive. It is active, and it conveys an action that that has been going on for some time and continues into the present.

    In screenwriting, we avoid the past continuous like the plague, because it slows the read down. Ditto the past perfect, the source of all those “hads.” They can be problematic in prose fiction as well because they place the reader at a remove from the action.

  17. DM
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 14:20:02

    CORRECTION:

    @Lynne:

    I think you are spot on: good opening pages don't need to be action packed, and the passive voice is part of the pleasing variation so important to good English prose.

    But this sample does not use the passive voice. And searching your text for forms of “to be” in order to reduce the use of the passive voice (which, yes, is a frequent problem for beginning writers) is only helpful if you can distinguish between the uses of the verb “to be.” It can be used to make a verb passive. But in this selection, it is being used as a linking verb.

    It can also be used to put the verb into the past continuous tense. The past continuous is not passive. It is active, and it conveys an action that that has been going on for some time and continues into the present.

    In screenwriting, we avoid the past continuous like the plague, because it slows the read down. Ditto the past perfect, the source of all those “hads.” They can be problematic in prose fiction as well because they place the reader at a remove from the action.

  18. SAO
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 15:11:52

    Gosh, what a storm I stirred up! I do apologize, as, in general, I am a grammar nitpicker who does know the difference between the past tense of ‘to be’, the past progressive tense and passive voice.

    I did a bad job of explaining that there was nothing happening in para one and the repetition of the word ‘was’ bored me.

    I will note in re-reading that there are lots of references to smells, but none described. The stink of the streets. Is it exhaust fumes, overripe garage, grease from a nearby fast food joint? What does the boy smell like? I’d be more into the story if I could smell the same smells instead of having to guess. The only one I really got was cigarette smoke, but it never burns my nostrils. If hersense of smell is acute, what does Jason smell like?

  19. Anonemoose
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 16:15:44

    “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high….”
    Those was-riddled sentences open the novel Stuart Little by E. B. White, who is the White in Strunk and White, who continues to sell a hell of a lot more books than the secret guardians of delusional English.
    That being said (true passive voice there), opening with weather is cliché. It was a dark and stormy night. Don't do it.
    Otherwise okay.

  20. Carolyn
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 16:56:40

    The piece was enjoyable but what jumped out at me was the overuse of compound sentences, especially in the first paragraph. All those ‘ands’ – I began to look ahead for them.

    I do want to know why Kate needs help, so I’d probably read on for a bit.

    Thanks for submitting; I know it’s hard to put it out there. There has been some really helpful critique though and that’s what it’s all about.

  21. The Author
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 17:21:36

    Wow – I’m amazed at all of the comments! Thanks very much for taking the time to read this and sharing your opinions. I really appreciate the thoughtful critiques, and will definitely incorporate them as I move forward with the story.

  22. okbut
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 17:49:16

    Liked it.

    Would continue reading this story and paranormal is not my usual genre.

    Good work, thank you for submitting.

  23. Leah Hultenschmidt
    Jan 08, 2011 @ 22:42:31

    I start to glaze a bit with “She had fed two nights ago.” I’d need something in there right away to differentiate this heroine from other vamps.

  24. SAO
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 01:18:27

    I will note that the examples of successful openings with ‘It was” or a repetition of ‘was’ are all striking sentences.

    You can get away with boring language if the clocks are striking 13 or the baby is a mouse.

    Strunk and White say “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as ‘There is’ . . .” The following bad examples have a lot of ‘was’ statements with the word missing in the improved examples.

    This advice is under Section 2, Elementary Principles of Composition, part 14, Use the Active Voice.

  25. DM
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 02:59:36

    Strunk & White is so wrong, so often. For an in depth analysis of its problems, and a chuckle, check out 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice By Geoffrey K. Pullum in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

    http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

  26. galwiththehoe
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 05:20:55

    Disclaimer: I am not familiar with paranormals.

    The writing flows well for me. Assuming I am down with the back blurb, I will keep reading. Without a back blurb/summary/positive review, probably not.

    I suggest adding a little content that shows me what is unique about your story/what’s at stake.

    Thank you for sharing.

  27. Julia Sullivan
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 13:21:48

    The misconception that the verb “to be” equals the passive voice is one of those “just between you and I” or “said-bookism” misconceptions. There is nothing wrong with the words “is” or “was”. Full stop.

    (Here is a classic example of the actual passive voice: “Mistakes were made in this administration.” That’s passive voice; it removes the agent from the sentence. Passive voice is useful sometimes, but only when an agent is unknown.)

    The problem with this grammatically excellent first page is that nothing happens, not that the word “was” is used. Something should happen.

  28. Karen
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 14:42:19

    3 words: wow wow, WOW! I love the imagery your words provide! Excellent! One of the very few good first pages. You write almost as well as a professional writer.

    Now having said that… is there any way you could make the hero sound less conspicuous? His large frame, deep voice and annoying superiority over the girl does get on the nerves.

  29. Heather
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 15:25:21

    I read mainly read paranormal romance and urban fanasty and I don’t have any real problem writing, but vamps aren’t really my thing. I’d likely read enough to find out what Kate needs help with, and from there figure out if I’d read on.

    Good luck to you

    Heather

  30. The Author
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 15:47:33

    Thanks again for all the comments – you guys are great!

  31. Courtney Milan
    Jan 09, 2011 @ 15:56:23

    This is an interesting discussion over the passive voice. I strongly recommend this wonderful piece from the UNC Writing Center on the passive voice that describes what it is, how to recognize it, and when to use it.

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