A clock is striking 4:00am at a psychiatric clinic. The darkness, the silence, and absence of people makes it look like a morgue. A young mental health professional is sitting in a chair drinking a cheap vodka alone. He doesn’t resemble a person who is certified in treating mental disorders. He has dark straight hair that is long enough to give him a teenage look. The only qualification seems to be is his sharp and intellectual look in his eyes. He is sitting in the middle of the clinic's cafeteria. The moon is the only thing that illuminates his emotionless face.

  • Thanks for posting your samples, they’ve prompted some excellent advice! Please keep them coming... – Cliff Hangerson Page Mar 16 '11 at 11:37

At four o'clock in the morning, the psychiatric clinic is dark and silent and empty, like a morgue. In the middle of the cafeteria, a lone young man sits in a chair drinking cheap vodka, his emotionless face illuminated only by the moon.

I removed the striking of the clock. Psychiatric clinics aren't likely to have clocks that strike, especially at four in the morning, especially in the cafeteria.

Also, I switched from present progressive to simple present tense. That feels more engaging to me.

I'm not sure what to do with the three sentences in the middle. I can't figure out the viewpoint. It can't be omniscient, because the narrator judges too many things from a narrow perspective:

  • "He doesn't resemble..." The narrator holds a limited model of what a mental health professional looks like.
  • "... give him a teenage look." The narrator presumes that only teenage males have long hair.
  • "The only qualification seems to be ..." The narrator fantasizes that he can usually determine psychiatric qualifications from a person's appearance.

These judgments are wholly unreliable. So is the narrator an actual, unreliable person observing the lone young man? If so, the young man isn't alone.

Or is this an omniscient narrator telling us that we readers might judge the young man in these ways? If so, that's mighty condescending of the reader.

Not knowing what the viewpoint is, I didn't know what to do with those three sentences.

As it turns out, I think the paragraph reads delightfully without those observations and judgments. Perhaps the information about the young man's looks could be restored into the paragraph somehow. But it might be better to add it in subsequent paragraphs—either without the judgments, or after we are more clearly introduced to the narrator who is doing the judging.

  • 4AM at a psychiatric clinic packs a fair punch as an opening. Nothing interesting should be happening there and then, but if something did, it would probably be awfully interesting! The improbable hour is a very nice touch, IMHO, that potentially takes this a step above merely using a clinic to show off a socially sensitive character or expose some character conflicts.
  • What bothers me most about the opening is that it is extremely cinematic. By "cinematic" I mean that the text describes to the reader what he would see, e.g. if he were watching this scene on film. Sometimes, cinematic writing is appropriate and excellent. Oftentimes, though, it isn't. What most readers expect from a book - and particularly from the opening pages - is to be immersed in a particular character's viewpoint; to ride around in his mind. Cinematic is the opposite of that - look how, in your description, the reader is placed firmly outside of the single character present. The reader may instinctively feel distant from the character - maybe no more than in any movie, but far more than in most books. Unless you intend to be writing much of this novel in cinematic tone, I strongly suggest that you find your point-of-view character and voice for this scene, and use it from the very first line.
  • A major effect of cinematic viewpoint is that there's no actual character doing the talking - it's all meant to be visual (or sensory, anyway), with no subjective interpretation. That means it's tough to get away with lines like "he doesn't resemble somebody who would treat mental disorders" - who is it who's making this observation? "Doesn't resemble" in whose opinion? How do you get away with "His only qualification seems to be...", when in the story, there's no one looking for qualifications and nobody in whose eyes the seeming takes place?
    • If this is something you want to do throughout your novel, you should read up on omniscient narration - that's where you've got a particular narrator voice, not necessarily tied to a concrete character, but with some measure of personality, interest, and awareness. And the narrator "sees" everything - basically an artificial construct to do all the seeing and opinionating. I'm not sure this is a direction you intend to be headed, though.
  • Another big difference between movies and books is that in the movies, you just see a psych clinic, or a figure. In a book, unless there's a good reason to do otherwise, you can (and should) name things explicitly; make them specific. It makes no sense for a disembodied voice to tell me, the reader, that something happened at a clinic without knowing and telling me which clinic. Now, you don't have to give proper names for everything - but referring to them as "the clinic," "the figure," etc., gives a sense of describing something specific and immediate - rather than a disembodied narrator introducing the scene to an implied reader.
  • I didn't like the phrasing of "a person who is certified in treating mental disorders" - it seems very long and awkward. I also didn't like "The only qualification seems to be is his sharp and intellectual look in his eyes" - attributing great significance and deep characterization to the way somebody's eyes look is a particularly unconvincing cliche.

I apologize that this is more criticism than direct recommendations for improvement; hopefully I've pointed out what needs to be improved, and made it clear roughly how. If I can, I'll be back later to give an example of a rewrite according to my above comments.

Hope these comments are helpful :)

  • Thanks, writing is harder than I imagined, but I will consider those critics. – Alexandro Chen Mar 15 '11 at 4:19

Use four a.m. (or just four as it becomes clear the scene is at night). (Also, most clocks don't strike differently for a.m. versus p.m.)

A young mental health professional -- Toss it and introduce him by name, instead. The next sentence implies his profession, and we get he's young from teenage look.


Dark, silent and deserted, it looks like a morgue.

You don't need to say alone, since you've already told us there is nobody else.

What is a sharp and intellectual look, especially in the eyes of someone who is getting drunk in the darkness? And it's not a qualification.

He is sitting in the middle of the clinic's cafeteria -- You said "He is sitting" earlier, so just drop this sentence and combine with the earlier one to establish the setting.

Hope this helps.

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