First Page Critique of SANCTUARY

Jordan Dane


We have another intrepid author who has submitted their first 400 words for critique. Enjoy the read. My feedback will be on the flip side. Join in the discussion with your constructive comments.


“Dr. Germano! I need you!”

Ray bolted to his feet, throwing the blood work report he was reading onto his desk. As he came out of his office, he nearly collided with one of his staff hurrying down the hall, carrying a box lid with a small bundle of fur huddled inside.

“Bring it into the common room, Mary Jo. Matt! You here?”

“On my way, Boss!” The answer came from the reception area.

Ray could hear the creature’s raspy breathing as he followed the woman to an exam table and winced when he saw the contents of the lid. A malnourished calico cat lay on its side, struggling for breath, eyes wide. A feathered shaft stuck out of its chest.

“My God, is that an arrow? Smart of you to carry it flat,” Ray said, with a nod to the tearful woman. “If that thing shifts, it could do some damage. Is it one of your neighbor’s cats?”

“I don’t think so, Doctor. I’ve haven’t seen this one around before and I know most of the outdoor cats around my apartment. I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out this morning.”

He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options. The practice policy was clear on drop offs and found animals. No heroic efforts unless the animal was a pet, with a collar or microchip. He could almost hear Phil. We’re running a business, damn it, Ray, not a charity! He had heard that speech many times over the years.

This cat was obviously a stray, as scruffy and skinny as it was. It couldn’t weigh eight pounds soaking wet. No one was going to step forward and claim it. Still, it seemed young and strong. It was still breathing with an arrow in its chest after all. He hated not to give it a chance. Her, give her a chance. Calicos were usually female. Well, Phil was retired now and he’d make his own decisions on who to treat.

He reached out and stroked her head gently. To his surprise, she tried to butt his hand and even mustered a faint purr. Then his eyes widened and he barely resisted the urge to jerk his hand back.


Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure want to know why the good doctor wanted to jerk his hand back. Shades of Pet Sematary. (I hope Catfriend weighs in on this. Expurrrrrt) The intro starts with a “call to attention” dialogue line. For the most part, the writer sticks with the action, except where the intro “strays” (pun intended) into the former practice policy.

FIRST PARAGRAPH – Since the first paragraph establishes the scene, I would suggest stronger wording to set the stage and focus on the action. I’d also suggest clarification on where the action takes place.

SuggestionRay bolted to his feet and threw a blood work report onto his desk. He rushed from his office and nearly collided into Mary Jo, one of his staff. She raced by him carrying a box lid with a small bundle of fur huddled inside.

It’s not clear to me what this business is. Dr. Germano has a desk and there is a practice policy. I’m assuming it’s a veterinary hospital or practice, but that’s never stated. This can be fixed by using a tag line at the beginning, before the first dialogue line, or it can be inserted into the first paragraph – He rushed from his office at Pavlov’s Veterinary Hospital…

STICK WITH THE ACTION – In the paragraph starting with the sentence, “He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options.” Unless this is important, I would shorten to minimize it or delete this paragraph.

Tightening SuggestionHe hesitated and weighed his options. Drop off animals, with no owners, would cost the practice. Unless the animal had a collar or a microchip, the practice policy stated no heroic efforts were to be made.

Then focusing on the cat and what he sees (perhaps foreshadowing a hint of peculiar behavior) would ramp up the creep factor.

Tightening Suggestion – Scruffy and skinny, the stray couldn’t weigh eight pounds soaking wet. No one would claim it, but it still breathed with an arrow in its chest. He hated not to give such a young and strong animal a chance. Her, give her a chance. Calicos were usually female. 

PASSIVE VOICE – There are several uses of passive voice in this short intro. Easy to clean up in 400 words, but the author should learn how to catch it as the words are streaming. Here are a few:

Before – Ray could hear the creature’s raspy…

After – Ray heard the creature’s raspy…


Before – I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out…

After – I found it in the alley when I took the trash out…


Before – No one was going to step forward and claim it.

After – No one would step forward and claim it.


Before – It was still breathing…

After – It still breathed…

NITPICKERS – There are always nit picky stuff that one person might notice, while other’s don’t. A good copy editor night catch these or reading your story aloud can help a great deal.

Boss – I would use lower case.

Around – used twice in same sentence, starting with line, “I don’t think so, Doctor.”

Who – The word “who” refers to people, not cats. See line, “…he’d make his own decisions on who to treat.”

Gently – use of adverb. “LY’ words raise a flag for me. Try to minimize or eliminate for stronger writing. In the line, “He reached out and stroked her head gently,” it’s strong enough and describes tenderness, that the word “gently” is not needed and is redundant. I might also focus on this action more, between the doctor and the cat. For example:

Suggestion – He reached out and stroked her head with an affection stray cats shunned from mistrust, but to his surprise, the tiny calico returned the tenderness with a head butt and a faint purr.

SUMMARY – I would definitely keep reading. I’m a pet lover and have had cats before. What cat owner hasn’t looked over their shoulder thinking someone is creeping up on them because their cat is staring at SOMETHING BEHIND YOU. This author, with a little clean up, would have me hooked.


Weight in, TKZers! Would you read on? What constructive comments would you make to help this author?

REDEMPTION FOR AVERY – A Ryker Townsend FBI profiler series – novella (31,000 words) $1.99 ebook, July 21, 2016 release with Susan Stoker’s Special Forces Amazon Kindle Worlds

59 thoughts on “First Page Critique of SANCTUARY

  1. Jordan, the beginning of your feedback reminded me of the motto on the crest of my McPherson clan kinsmen, “Touch Not The Cat But A Glove.” (Rough translation: Don’t touch a wildcat when its claws are out).

    I agree with your comments, and add my thanks to yours to today’s writer for submitting this page! ?

      • It’s magic, baby! 😉

        The premise of the story/book is that people have lost touch with the magic in the world all around them. They literally can’t see the (very few) magical creatures right in front of them, like Miss Calico. This is about how a handful of characters trying to keep the remaining magic from being destroyed utterly.

        • Cool! If it’s about magic, I think there needs to be some small hint of that in the opening.

          • Actually, there is but it was just beyond the 400 word limit. Ray is an animal empath – he can sense animals’ emotions when he touches them – but when he touches this cat, she “looks” back at him. Blows his mind. 🙂

  2. I like that the scene opens with action, and something surprising – an arrow in a cat. An excellent set-up.

    May I suggest that the dialogue, as written, works against the tension. A dialogue revamp, COMPRESSING the dialogue, will make the scene really taut.

    For example:

    “Bring it into the common room, Mary Jo. Matt! You here?”

    This dialogue is doing just a tad too much. How would the staff refer to “the emergency room”? And “into” is one syllable too many. This is better:

    “Get it to emergency. Mary Jo! Matt!”

    Notice we don’t nee “You here?” because it’s obvious. IOW, you’ve got to render dialogue as the characters would actually speak it, rather than making it “explanatory” for the reader.

    Another example:

    “My God, is that an arrow? Smart of you to carry it flat,” Ray said, with a nod to the tearful woman. “If that thing shifts, it could do some damage. Is it one of your neighbor’s cats?”

    This dialogue is really for the benefit of the reader, isn’t it? It’s giving the reader professional information. It blunts the surprise of the initial observation.

    “My God, is that an arrow?”
    The woman chocked back a sob.

    I don’t think the doc would immediately go on to the carried it flat bit, or the if it shifts bit. The woman is beside herself. And then he questions her.

    To which I have a question. If he doesn’t know this woman, why would he ask her if it’s one of her neighbor’s cats? Where did that come from? It seems only to set up the answer:

    “I don’t think so, Doctor. I haven’t seen this one around before and I know most of the outdoor cats around my apartment. I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out this morning.”

    For a tearful woman, this is a rather lengthy and steady answer, with complete sentences. Better:

    “I found it in the alley.”

    In other words, this opening dialogue seems more about delivering information to the reader than it is about how these characters would really talk to each other under these conditions.

    Compress! Cut! It always works wonders with dialogue, especially in a tense situation.

    Do that, and I am on to the next page!

    • Good input, Jim. That sense of urgency creates tension & pace but it also reflects on the dedication and compassion of these characters.

      • I couldn’t agree more, Jim. While reading, I thought it awfully convenient that information was being supplied through dialogue for the readers’ benefit. That said, I would definitely keep reading once it’s tightened. Hats off to this brave author!

        Jordan, your advice is stellar as always. 🙂

    • This is such good advice – thank you! You know what the worst of it is? Your book on dialogue lives next to my computer. It appears I need to open the covers more often!

  3. I agree with James that the dialogue is overboard. It’s the first thing I noticed after the first paragraph of passive voice mentioned by Jordan and found throughout this piece. I’m not sure if the woman and Mary Jo are one in the same, that was a bit confusing.

    The first paragraph might sound more immediate by replacing all the ‘ing’ verbs and rearranging for effect. For example, the tears should be mentioned in the very beginning, not 5 paragraphs into the scene.

    For example:

    Ray bolted to his feet and threw the blood work report onto his desk. He rushed into the hall and nearly collided with one of his staff. She carried a small bundle of fur in her arms.

    “It’s really bad, doctor,” Mary Joe said, her eyes red and wet with tears.

    “In here,” he ordered as he marched toward the double doors.

    I like the start as well, being there is action and dialogue. Some tightening would make it read faster, but I would continue on to the next page!

    Nice work.

  4. Bravo to the author for having the courage to share this here. Like Jordan, I’m a pet lover, and of course, I want to know what happens to the cat. Here’s a quick list of comments:

    1. What kind of story is this? If it’s going to be a scary story, the beginning should prepare the reader for the coming tone. As Jordan mentioned, ramp up the “creep factor” even sooner.

    2. I like Jordan’s idea of putting the name of the animal hospital in the opening.

    3. MS Word will find instances of passive voice for you. Here’s how to set it up:

    4. As far as adverbs go, I don’t believe we should completely abolish adverbs from writing. I like adverbs. However, they should be used judiciously. Think about using adverbs when they contradict the action. For example:

    The greyhound barked quietly.
    The Girl Scout skipped lazily.

    Here’s a quick list of the adverbs you used in this snippet: nearly, obviously, forward, usually, gently, barely

    You might want to think about eliminating a few of those, but I don’t hate adverbs.

    5. The word “was” pops up a lot on this page. For example:
    “the blood work report he was reading”
    “practice policy was clear”
    “animal was a pet”
    “was obviously a stray”
    “as skinny as it was”
    “No one was going to step forward”
    “was still breathing with an arrow”
    “was retired now”
    “was taking the trash out”

    Sometimes the word is useful to establish the voice of a particular character, but “was” is definitely on my “monitored words” lists when I check my own writing. On the last critique, I shared a link to an article that discussed ways to eliminate “was” from your writing.

    Nice job. Keep writing!

    • Thanks, GR – great tips. No creep factor in this part and the story is more of a suburban fantasy-adventure-mystery. Still, will keep in mind the setting of the tone in other scenes.

      Thanks for the link to the passive word watcher – that’s neat!

      • Ok, I read an article by Shanna Swendson that kind of ties into that sort of thing:

        One thing I’ve learned is that it’s good to get my premise nailed down before I start writing. I keep a sticky note pinned to my computer for inspiration. Good luck with your book, and I hope I get to read it.

        Btw, I love computer tools that help do the work of editing and use them all the time. We should do all we can to preserve our vision!

        • That’s funny! I picked that book up a while back and it’s still sitting on my to be read pile. I’ll have to move it up a bit.

          The author I love the most for this kind of thing is Charles De Lint. Any of his Newford stories is well worth a read. Well, really, ANY of his work is worth a read, IMHO. His combination of urban settings with both European and Native American mythology is so unique and his “voice” is beautiful.

  5. Intriguing setup with immediate action. I like that the vet puts compassion ahead of profit. I’d keep reading.

    Agree with Jordan’s and Jim’s excellent input on cutting unnecessary words and passive voice.

    Like Jim, I also had confusion between characters. Are MaryJo and the tearful woman the same character? If so, suggest you use her name since that’s how Ray would think of a member of his staff.

    Pronoun confusion with the sentence “Well, Phil was retired now and *he’d* make his own decisions on who to treat.” I assume you mean *Ray* would make his own decisions.

    With minimal rewriting, you’ve got a great beginning. Good luck, brave writer.

    • Thank you, Debbie. I wondered if I was not being clear who was who. In my head, I know exactly who I’m talking about. Why can’t readers just become psychic? It would make our jobs easier. Will watch for this in the future.

  6. Jordan, thanks so much for your wonderful critique. I hadn’t realized I used the passive voice so much. It always amazes me how it’s so easy to catch it in someone else’s work yet it slips by in my own. Reading it aloud is a great idea – I’ll draft Hubby as a listening partner. 🙂

    I love the picture you choose – the little mustaches and goatee are adorable! I think you would like some of the other critter characters that will surface later. The research I’ve done on mythological animals turned up some very interesting possibilities. There will be another cat, named Jax, who is a cactus cat. You can pet him but only if he wants you to!

  7. You had me at hello, kitty.

    (Love that photo, Jordan!)

    Seriously, not a bad start at all with a good opening premise. Only thing I had to say Jim already said better, that the dialogue needs to be sharper. I am not sure what KIND of book I am reading (cozy? dark? YA?) that that will come out, I think, considering this sample is so short. I could tell this was a vet clinic (would that be the word instead of “practice”?) so that didn’t bother me. Just clear up a little confusion about who is walking where and who is talking, and this is a good start.

    On small thing: The doc is thinking about fact that this practice doesn’t treat strays. Many clinics have what is called Good Samaritan policies, where they have a policy in place that lays out for the staff the “rules” about this. Years ago, I saw a dog hit by car and took it into a clinic. It died but the clinic treated it anyway and didnt’ charge me because, the vet said, they had a good samaritan policy. Which is nice to know.

    • I like that good Samaritan policy. As a kid, I brought in an injured animal (or two) to my local vet & they never objected or charged my parents. Good people. They inspired me to “almost” become a vet and always rescue animals.

      Good points, Kris.

    • I worked at a vet clinic many moons ago and one of the elder vets insisted we not treat strays. No one followed this dictum, needless to say. I was trying to hint at the conflict between the vets that becomes important later in the story, but perhaps this is not the place. Thanks for reading and your advice – much appreciated!

      • Exactly. Have patience with the intro. Once you layer in the mystery elements, you’ll have plenty of time to fill in details as the story unfolds. Pepper in details as it makes sense but don’t be afraid to add a turning point on those facts as the plot moves forward. It’s fun.

  8. Hi Sharie. Pet owners, especially cat people, will love this. WhenI write animals in my stories, they are often my pets or a family member’s pet. Good job and thanks for your submission.

  9. Good opening, and I agree with the comments to tighten the dialogue and give us hints about what kind of story this is: Cozy mystery? Horror? Also, can the author give us a hint as to time of year? Was it cold/hot in the alley where the woman found the cat?
    One tiny nit, Jordan, and one I often discuss with copyeditors. Technically a cat is an “it,” not “he” or “she.” But when you call a person or animal “it,” you devalue them. Cops have solved child abuse murders because the abused baby’s father called his child “it.” I don’t want to compare pets to babies, but someone who truly loves animals, as this vet does, would refer to the cat as “she,” not “it.”

    • Yes, sign me up under the “non-it” group, Elaine. I understand your point but I never refer to my pets as “it.”

      Plus the vet mentions calicos are generally female. From all my many appts with vets, they use he or she because pet owners treat their adored pets like their children.

      I’ve even tested my pets’ DNA. It? No way.

      • Good point – I will change that bit. Agree re: vets. You should see our vet – he’s the biggest softie I’ve ever met. Whenever we bring in our pug, Gracie, he spends 10 minutes playing with her before asking what brought us in! Then hands her treats while lecturing us about keeping her weight down. We love him.

  10. Sigh. Jordan, if you hadn’t mentioned me by name I was going to let this one go and not comment. I really, really, REALLY have a hard time reading/seeing/hearing about animals in pain. I hear Sarah McLachlan I close my eyes and fast forward, or change the station. The news is reporting something bad happened to an animal, I change the station. So if I were to open a book and on the first page a cat is shot with an arrow, even if that cat were to be saved – as it sounds like is going to happen here – I would close it and walk away. If someone told me this book was fabulous and I had to read it, and that incident were on the first page, I would skip ahead until after the incident. It’s just not something I can deal with. Mayhem with people, not a problem. Animals? Can’t deal. Therefore, I don’t think I can give my best critique, but I will do my best.

    I have read the piece a few times now, and all of the comments, including those of the author. I like the author’s premise as she describes it in the comments. I like that story. I wish I had a better indication of that from this sample. Since the animal empath reveal occurs just after the 400 words I suspect that by following some of the excellent tightening suggestions already given that the reveal can happen in the first 400 words. I would urge the author to do so. It lets readers know what the story is about. It would help with the tone. I didn’t know this was of the fantasy genre, and I would like to have known that on the first page. Also, on my first read something about the initial dialogue made me think ‘comedy’, which it’s obviously not. JSB gives excellent advice for you on this. I do think this story has potential.

    • Ha! Sorry to call you out. You bring up an excellent point that there are avid readers who get very vocal at any animal being hurt. It is tricky to do, even if it’s vital to the plot. I read a book with an animal death from another animal and the imagery stayed with me long after I finished the book. I would hope this story wields quick justice to anyone who would use an arrow to torture strays, but if it doesn’t, readers may react.

      Thanks for your input.

      • I, too, can’t tolerate books in which animals are hurt. (I had ten cats at one point in my life). I remember reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Minette Walters but then she had the villain torture cats by duct-taping their mouths and eyes closed. I couldn’t finish it. I wouldn’t finish it. It horrified me.

        But this opening didn’t bother me, because I got the feeling I was about to witness the cat being saved. I hope I am right! But if it goes in a negative direction, I don’t think I could read on.

        All this said, it does bring up the old axiom about mysteries: Never kill the cat or dog. 🙂

      • Like Catfriend99, I would love to see more of a hint about the type of story we’re reading as close to the beginning as possible. I’d be thinking about some kind of a zinger of a first line that would tie in the magic bit.

    • Catfriend, I hope this piece was not too upsetting. The cat is saved and essentially sent to cat heaven (new home at the Sanctuary) later in the story. Thank you for your insights. I hadn’t realized it was coming across as comedy but I’m not surprised. I’ve been told I’m an unregenerate wise ass (courtesy of Darling Spouse) and I suppose it comes through in my writing. Something else to watch out for!

      Um, if the mods approve, I would be happy to tag on a bit more of the scene that clears up some of the questions but only if it’s OK.

      • I’d be all for it, but we’ll have to let the mods ring in on this one.

  11. One small nitpick, Jordan. You mention how the author uses passive voice, but none of the examples you gave are actually passive voice since the subject of the sentence is performing the action. Of course, those sentences are considered passive and should be tightened as you suggest. But some writers get confused on the difference between passive writing and passive voice and I thought I’d point out the difference.

    • I understand what you’re saying, Ken. I see certain words as triggers for me, modal verbs like “could” or gerunds like “going to” and those phrases are what I consider weak writing that should be tightened or strengthened. Your point is well taken about subject vs verb & passive voice. Thanks.

    • I wasn’t going to start down this path, but I’ll offer a couple of quick tidbits/clarifications:

      1. There is a subtle difference in the English language between “was going to” and “would” – they aren’t always interchangeable. Here’s a link that explains about this:

      2. Another point. Many folks think all sentences that contain a form of the verb “to be” are in passive voice, but that isn’t true. “I am holding a chihuahua” is in active voice, but it uses the verb “am,” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of that sentence is “The chihuahua is being held by me.

      3. What’s the difference between active and passive voice?
      In an active sentence, the subject is performing the action.
      Example: Blake saves the cat.
      If we wanted to write it in passive voice, we’d write:
      The cat is saved by Blake.
      So the target of the action gets put in the subject position.

      Here are some quick exercises to try if this seems confusing:

      Hope this helps someone!

  12. I’ve given this some more thought. One topic that is often discussed on this site is the proper entry point for a story. That may be a (slight) issue here as well. If the most important thing is the magic, and the conflict between the vets doesn’t become an issue until later, then why bother starting with this dialogue at all? Consider starting with the cat on the vet exam table, the vet knowing this cat needed his help now or else she would die, and then he touches her and gets the shock, etc. You could set this up within the first paragraph or two. Skip the running around the office. It’s not germane to the story premise. Introduce the bickering later. I don’t know how the cat is personified later, but this might be your perfect character for wise ass dialogue.

    • I’d play with this idea, Catfriend. I like the eerie creep factor.

      Intros are always a challenge to get them the best they can be. I’d tweak this to add more mystery.

      For example, make it night in an after hours emergency vet hospital. Maybe someone odd drops off the cat but disappears, almost in thin air. Would be cool if the surveillance cameras don’t record ANYONE dropping off the cat. Or have the cat die but when vet turns his back, he hears a purr and peers over his shoulder and the cat has raised its head, staring at him.

      If you add the mystery of the cat sooner and stronger, the cruelty issue is s non-issue. EVERYONE will want to know what is happening.

      Mystery elements are great teasers to pull readers into a story.

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