First Page Critique – The New One

Welcome to today’s brave Anonymous Author with the first page entitled The New One.

THE NEW ONE

“I’m new,” the vampire said.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire.  I didn’t even know vampires existed.

So.  She’d come in off the street.  My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist.  I planned to do paperwork for a while.  I was standing at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman silently watching me.  I jumped involuntarily as she spoke.

“Dr. Gilder, I presume?”

“Yes.  I’m Carrie Gilder.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Office hours are over for today.  You should call the office in the morning and make an appointment.”  I started around the desk.  “Now, if you don’t mind—”

“Please.  It’s important.  I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

I looked at her, appraising.  She was striking.  Tall, well dressed, elegant.  She radiated power and confidence.  I felt drawn in by her eyes, somehow.  Maybe that’s why, almost against my better judgment, I relented, as if I had no choice.  “Step into my office.”

I watched as she glanced around the room.  What a contrast, I thought.  My office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall.  And she’s so sleek and, what?  Cold comes to mind.  She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger.

She sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair opposite mine.  I was making notes.  Young woman.  Attractive.  Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

“Thank you?” I said, frowning.  Not something I usually hear from my patients.

“Okay,” I said with a shrug.  “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand, which I found surprisingly cold.  “I am Pica.  Pica Sharp.”  She then settled back in the chair.

I looked at her curiously.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I was 27,” she replied.

“Was.”  Odd way to say it, I thought, making a note.

“Yes.”

“So, Pica, why are you here?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Well, you’ve got fifty minutes.”

She frowned.  “Yes.  I understand.  Cut to the chase, then.”

 

OK, let’s get to work. Upfront disclaimer: I’m not well-versed in vampire fiction. Please chime in if you’re more familiar with the genre. Suggestions are in blood red, naturally.

First, the title. While the line– “I’m new,” the vampire said.–piqued my interest, the title did not. The New One sounds vague and colorless—it gives no hint about genre, plot, character, conflict, or theme. Perhaps its significance becomes clear in the book but it doesn’t make a strong first impression on the reader.

A title must grab attention in a few short words, offering a tantalizing taste of what’s inside the book. A vivid cover may prop up a nondescript title. But in today’s competitive publishing world, authors need to make the strongest first impression possible, using every tool at their disposal. Search for keywords that relate to your plot: blood, vampire, undead, immortality, seduction, etc. Check out synonyms to trigger more ideas. Vampire fans, please add your suggestions to the list.

Anon, you quickly and clearly set up the situation: A psychiatrist or psychologist is alone in her office after hours when a vampire enters, seeking treatment. Carrie Lister’s normal world tilts.

The undercurrent of disturbance isn’t overly dramatic—no dead bodies, weapons, or explosions. Yet the reader gets the sense that Carrie’s life will undergo major changes because of her new patient. That is more than adequate to kick off an intriguing tale.

Now to the details:

“I’m new,” the vampire said.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire.  I didn’t even know vampires existed. A short, neat summary w/o wasting time on backstory. Well done.

However, upon re-reading, I wondered about that first line. It’s not clear when Pica actually says this. Kicking off a story with an attention-grabbing first line is important but if that bit of dialogue doesn’t actually occur, it feels like a bit of a cheat. A few paragraphs below, I’ve inserted the line in a different place.

Pica is a great vampire name. I’m guessing, Anon, that you also meant to refer to the disorder–pica–of eating things that are not normally considered food, like…uh…blood.

While you establish the setting and situation clearly, modifiers like “silently” and “involuntarily” are unnecessary. Adjectives and adverbs dilute the power of strong nouns and verbs. I also rearranged the order a bit for clarity.


So.  My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist.  I planned to do paperwork for a while.  I and was flipping through messages at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman silently watching me.  I jumped. I hadn’t heard her enter. I jumped involuntarily as she spoke. She’d come in off the street.

“I need to talk to you. I’m new.” [Inserting the “new” line here may eliminate the feeling of a cheat.]>

Watch out for the proper sequence of action and reaction. In the original, it sounds as if Carrie looks up to see Pica yet it’s Pica’s voice that startles Carrie. However, Pica is “silently” watching. Choose either sight or sound as the trigger: 1) Carrie looks up and sees Pica, then jumps, followed by Pica speaking (which is how I rewrote it); or 2) Pica says, “I’m new,” causing Carrie to jump, then she sees the unexpected visitor.

“Office hours are over for today.  You should call the office in the morning and make an appointment.”  I started moved around the desk to escort her out. “Now, if you don’t mind—”

You follow with a nice subtle reminder that she’s a vampire: ”I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

Chop unnecessary verbiage. Watch out for words like “was” that often indicate passages that could be rewritten in a stronger way. Cut modifiers like “almost.” Below are several ideas to tighten up the prose:

I appraised her: looked at her, appraisingShe was striking, tall, well dressed, elegant.

Given two choices of how to express a thought, cut the weak and always go with the strongest:  Maybe that’s why, almost against my better judgment, I relented, as if I had no choice. “Step into my office.” Suggest you delete almost against my better judgment because the latter phrase I relented, as if I had no choice does a much better job of illustrating the irresistible pull the vampire has over Carrie. It also hints at her personality (more on that in a minute).

I watched as She glanced around the room.  What a contrast, I thought,.  My to my warm, comfortable office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall. You don’t need I watched as or the separate declaration My office is warm and comfortable… Instead, incorporate the description into Carrie’s ongoing thoughts.

And She’s so sleek and, what?  Cold came to mind.  She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger. The petal fluttered to the floor. Italicize cold to emphasize. I also added a small detail about the petal dropping to underscore Pica’s sinister quality.

She sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair opposite mine.  I made was making notes: Young woman.  Attractive.  Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

I frowned. “Thank you?” I said, frowningNot something I usually hear from my patients usually say. I shrugged. “Okay, ” I said with a shrug.  “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

Thank you” followed by a question mark makes Carrie sound uncertain, as if she’s not sure how to react. If you intend to show she lacks confidence, that works. But it struck me as odd because a psychologist has likely heard strange statements from new patients and would already have practiced responses.

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand. , which I found It felt surprisingly cold in the warm evening.  “I am Pica.  Pica Sharp.”  She then settled back in the chair.

Strong sensory details, especially touch, add to the mood. The reader not only sees Pica but feels her. Her cold handshake serves as more than simple description—it underscores the vampire theme and unsettling discomfort that Carrie experiences.

Choose a strong verb instead of modifying a weak one. I studied her. looked at her curiously.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

She replied, “I was 27.” she replied.  For more impact, place the punchline at the end of the sentence.

“Was?”  Odd. I made way to say it, I thought, making a note. Nice hint of vampire immortality.

The style is minimalist and understated but maybe too understated. First person POV gives an opportunity to showcase a captivating, distinctive voice. However, Carrie’s tone sounds bland and clinically detached. I suggest you exploit the first person voice to give more hints of her personality under the professional demeanor.

Read Jim Bell’s VOICE. His terrific examples show how a character’s background colors her attitude and reactions in ways that don’t slow the story’s action.

Below are some thoughts that might trigger ideas to add depth to Carrie’s attitude.

Is she inexperienced and a little unsure? Is she a sincere healer who believes she can help patients? Or a burnout case putting in her time? Is she a seasoned old hand who’s heard it all? All, that is, except for a patient who’s a vampire.

Why does she make an exception to see an after-hours patient? Is she bored with her life and this piques her interest? Does she need the money? Maybe she has nothing to go home to. Kids are grown and moved out. Or she dreads going home to her mate because he’ll be drunk again.

Why does she succumb to the vampire’s will? What in her character makes her vulnerable to Pica’s allure?

Obviously, Carrie’s full background and experience shouldn’t appear in the first page but her voice must hint at why she is unique and why the reader should turn the page. Carrie must be interesting enough that we’re compelled to follow her journey, the same as she is compelled to listen to this mysterious patient outside normal working hours.

Anonymous Author, you did a good job of orienting the reader to your story world. You present the situation, set the scene, introduce two major characters, hint at the conflict, and raise questions. If you fully exploit the first person POV to amp up Carrie’s voice, you’ll be on your way.

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions can you offer our brave Anonymous Author?

 

For a cheap thrill, my book Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99 during May.

 

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular guest blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

38 thoughts on “First Page Critique – The New One

  1. I agree with your comments, Debbie, but would add that I don’t think the reader should have to figure out what Carrie’s job is. We’re assuming she’s a psychiatrist or somesuch, but it’s not really clarified.

    Perhaps some comment about her last patient would help? “Her last patient of the day, Harvey, had run past his fifty minutes, but he’d had a breakthrough. The giant rabbit that followed him everywhere was no longer working weekends.” That’s obviously a little lighthearted for the novel’s tone, but you get the idea.

    Also, my preference as a reader is to spend more time in the present than the past. This appears to be a flashback? I’d like to experience the scene as it happens. It’s much easier for me to get a feel for Carrie that way.

    Thanks, brave writer, for the submission!

  2. Tom, you made me smile with the reference to my all-time favorite Jimmy Stewart film.

    You make a valid point about the scene being a flashback. Overall, I think it works b/c it opens at a moment of major change to the protagonist’s life and proceeds with action and revelation, rather than static backstory, which is often the problem with flashbacks. My question is: would the scene have enough impact if the reader DIDN’T immediately know that Pica is a vampire? I tend to think not. A certain amount of foreknowledge increases tension about what’s to come.

    Thanks for joining in.

    • I agree with your point about the scene having no impact if the reader didn’t know Pica was a vampire. Like you, I don’t read much (any) vampire stories. If the author wanted to hook someone like me into her story, just telling me that Pica was a vampire wouldn’t do it.

      Maybe something like…
      Carrie sighed as the bell over the door jingled. “Sorry, we’re closed,” she said without looking up.
      “I’m new.”
      The doctor glanced at the speaker. “Can you call–” Was that blood on the woman’s teeth?

      Yeah, it needs work, but something like that grabs me right away.

      Have a great day!

  3. I agree with Debbie’s suggestions to rearrange here and there and to cut the weaker words. It would make the stronger portions stand out even more.

    As for titles, I’m no expert, but how about playing up Pica’s dangerous attraction, especially if the story is going to be a vampire romance? Maybe something like Blood Seduction (which has kinda been done), or Seductive Blood, or Sharp Seduction (because of Pica’s last name).

    Brave author, I dig vampire and spooky stories, and you’ve set up a dangerous situation, a doctor alone at night in her office with a vampire. Will the doctor get bitten or what? I want to turn the page to find out. If you follow Debbie’s recommendations, your opening would be strong enough that I’d be COMPELLED to turn the page to find out. Good luck in your continued writing pursuits.

  4. It’s an interesting start. I agree with Debbie’s comments for improvements.

    As someone who earned a Masters in Psychology, I found the main character to be inaccurate and the situation unbelievable. Some commenters have suggested that the doctor lacks confidence/experience. You don’t get a PhD without spending many hours in mentored practice. If you’re newly minted, you can’t afford an office of your own and a receptionist. Psychologists and psychiatrists also don’t make notes that describe eyes as dark or a patient as attractive. They use clear, clinical language much like you would see in a police report. Patients are allowed to have access to their records, and records may end up in court, or at the very least, shipped off to other practitioners. Everyone in the field is pretty careful about what gets included and how it’s stated. If you don’t get the details right, you’ll definitely hear from your readers!

    Saying, “Do you mind if I ask…” would never happen. The doc would start by asking the patient to complete a medical history, and then the doc would interview to find out the primary issue that brought the patient. If you want to skip over this boring intake, then have the doc be flummoxed about why she’s letting this woman skip all that stuff when she would never consider doing it for anyone else, ie, the doc’s lost control, and it worries her. Or make the intake a useful way to introduce the vampire by having the doc ask the questions on the form, like her birthdate. I recall that the first Jack Reacher book introduces the character by having a cop arrest Jack and complete an intake form.

    Thanks for submitting, and keep writing!

    • K.S., good insights into the scene’s realism. I particularly like your idea of Carrie being flummoxed, losing control, and worrying. That would pull the reader deeper into her character. Thanks, always good to have an insider’s perspective.

  5. I liked all of your edits and suggestions, Debbie. I particularly love the bit with the falling petal—that’s an excellent way to use the environment and a “reaction” (in this case, from the flower) to establish Pica’s character.

    As I read this page I wanted to get more of a sense of Carrie’s internal reaction, which would also help make her a more compelling character. Right now she seems a bit passive and bland in her responses to Pica. Perhaps she gets annoyed at herself or questions her decision to break her own standing rule against takng “walk in” patients.

    Nice job, I’d say to the writer. Keep going!

  6. “I’m new,” the vampire said.
    Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire. I didn’t even know vampires existed.

    These kind of openings bug me. The second line indicates what is coming is all flashback. Or, if it is not flashback, then it is akin to the hoary device: “Lucy had no way of knowing that the killer was hiding around the corner.” Or “Little did Lucy know that this would be her last night on earth.”

    But I like the idea of a vampire going to a shrink. Reminds me of Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi…an evil soul trying to get right. 🙂

  7. This is a good draft and an interesting concept. Debbie’s suggestions will improve the presentation of the story. I would turn the page.
    Anon, I realize that 400 or so words isn’t your whole story. I hope you’ve worked through the complete story because you have the opportunity to write a great story. Interview with a Vampire has already been done. Good book, not so good movie. Either way, something derivative of other books would be less interesting, go for original.
    A couple of suggestions:
    1. Don’t use the word vampire. Let the reader figure it out. That will help with tension and encourage the reader’s participation. Give Pica an air of upset or strangeness, rather than confidence. After all she is new.
    2. I’d change to 3rd person close. Right now, the doctor is your main character observing the monster. If the monster is the main character, I think it will open the story up to some great introspection about being different and/or being newly dangerous. If the reader can actually feel it, you’ve touched the heart of real horror stories.
    3. In those first 400 pages give us hint that the doctor really is in physical danger.
    If you haven’t read Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night, I think you’ll love it and might inspire you. Find it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0779G8VNY/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
    I hope you finish this story. I would read it with or without my paltry suggestions.

      • Good points, Brian. Esp. your suggestion quoted below.

        If the monster is the main character, I think it will open the story up to some great introspection about being different and/or being newly dangerous. If the reader can actually feel it, you’ve touched the heart of real horror stories.

        When we recognize potential evil inside ourselves, that’s jarring and terrifying.

        Anon should be encouraged by your feedback.

  8. Thank you all for your great ideas. The book is finished but I want to make the beginning compelling enough to hook readers, aka agents/publishers. The critique was very informative with concrete steps to take. I like that in an editor! Really a nice surprise to hear that some of you would want to read more. Thank you again!

    • Hi Pamela, always nice to hear from the secret author. You’ve clearly gained the interest of some pretty savvy readers. Let us know when the book comes out. Best of luck.

  9. I like this piece quite a lot. I agree with most of the proposed edits, but nothing in the original prose as written would have ejected me from the story or printed as unprofessional. I sense that there’s a bit of mind control going on in the subtext here, and that, to me, explains some of the psychologist’s actions/reactions.

    I have a practical question for Debbie: How do you get a red font to work here?

    • John, if I told you, I’d have to kill you 😉

      Actually it’s easy. Highlight the word you want to change to red. In the second line of the Word Press editing toolbar, go to the box with an “A” and an arrow beside it. Click on the arrow and the color choices pop up. Click on the color you want. Voila.

  10. I love vampire stories. Rather than saying Pica is a vampire, I think you could add some suspense by dropping a value or two and let the reader think “Oh my gosh, she’s a vampire!”

    A few quibbles: 1) new vampires are out of control. This one is very civilized.
    2) I work in psych. Because of our clientele, security is paramount. No one comes waltzing into a doctor’s office. If they do, you need to address that. 3) Would Pica really offer her hand? She knows it’s cold. The doctor might offer (or might not. Some patients have issues with being touched).

    I love the premise.

  11. I enjoyed this.
    The only problem I had was with the observations of the person in the office – it just didn’t seem professional for any profession that refers to the people they work with as patients.

  12. Thanks for sharing your work with us, Pamela. Sorry that I’m late to the party today. So, we have a vampire going to a shrink (I’m guessing). Interesting. Is Pica going to eat the doctor or is Pica depressed that she’s no longer living? Hmm… a suicidal vampire? Will the shrink assume the vampire is nuts? The mind reels. Your opening has my attention. Debbie made some great editing suggestions and gave you a very thoughtful critique. I encourage you to tighten things as much as possible. Here are some additional comments/ideas.

    Presentation

    Use only one space after the punctuation mark at the end of each sentence.

    Plot and Structure

    You decided to start the story on the day the doctor meets the vampire. Ever consider having the doctor find out the patient is a vampire during one of the sessions? One person commented about the need for paperwork and such. If you begin a little bit later in the story, the paperwork and “hello, how do you do” kind of stuff can be eliminated in favor of meatier content. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the shrink found out the patient was a vampire during a hypnosis session? (Btw, if you’re interested in they hypnosis suggestion, email me. Have loads of information.) But I digress…

    Dialogue

    In the dialogue, the vampire mentions cutting to the chase. I suggest that, as the writer, you do this for your character. Keep the dialogue snappy. For example:

    “Please. It’s important. I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

    Trim it (and get rid of the extra spaces after the periods). Try this:

    “I’m not a morning person.”

    Try to use subtext in your dialogue whenever you can. Go through each line of dialogue. Trim. Add subtext.

    Opening Line

    “I’m new,” the vampire said.

    This isn’t an awful opening line, but I don’t think I would begin the story this way. I’d probably start with some kind of a line that hinted about the ethical considerations of treating a vampire (without coming out and saying that the patient is a vampire right away).

    Voice

    If you write in first person, your character needs to have a distinct voice. This will sell your story. I recommend that you read the book Creating Voice: The Complete Guide to Creating A Presence on the Page & Engaging Readers. Good stuff.

    Style

    Too many adverbs on the first page (silently, usually, surprisingly, curiously).
    Watch out for repeated words. If repeated words don’t leap out at you, use a software program to find them. For example, you use “looked” at least three times on one page. There are many other repeated words. Also, there’s some overwriting. Debbie gave you lots of excellent ideas about how to proceed in this area already,

    Need to walk my pup now. Have fun with your revisions. Best of luck and carry on!

      • You’re not late, Joanne. TKZ is open 24/7.

        Suicidal vampire? Now that’s a really interesting concept. Your hypnosis suggestion would also be a novel method to reveal information. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

        • Well, you know maybe the new vampire life isn’t something Pica can “live with” (so to speak). And it’s up to the shrink to keep her from jumping on a stake or overdosing on a bottle of garlic pills. Of course, the shrink has ethical considerations. Should she try to keep the vampire from killing herself? Of course, we don’t really know yet why the vampire is going to the shrink. Have to say I’m curious about this one!

          • Joanne, I love your thoughts. I’m going to use your “I’m not a morning person” comment. It’s perfect. In actuality, Pica isn’t the focus of the book, it’s Carrie, and Pica only features in the first third of the story. Do you do beta reading? Pam

            • I don’t know if this is against the rules or not, but I wanted to share how I’ve reworked the beginning to see if you like this better. Is this okay to do?

              • Certainly, Pamela! Resubmit it through the blog’s email address the same way as before (include a note referencing that this is a re-submission of a previously critiqued first page and the date of the original critique). Cheers, Kathryn

            • Glad my comments were helpful, Pamela. I do editing/beta reading and such as time permits. Can’t wait to see your revisions.

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