“I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 1

ca_20150131_026When choosing a novel or reading through the slush pile, readers, publishers, and literary agents make snap decisions about books. Below are my snap decisions about ten novel openings written by Novel Boot Camp participants.

I stopped reading (and ended the excerpt) at the point that I was no longer interested in continuing. I also included comments about why the story didn’t catch my interest.

Please play along by tracking which books you would want to read more of. There will be a poll at the end of the post.

To submit your own novel opening, click here.

“I Stopped Reading When…”

1. Literary

John Gold has always been a noisy man.  As a baby his mother would sleep wearing earplugs knowing only the wails penetrating the rubber bullets would be worth attending.  Every morning his steps thud his arrival to the open plan office he takes large, confident strides through to reach his private sealed off corner on the floor he rules as hedge fund manager.

Calling the earplugs “rubber bullets” confused me so I had to reread the second sentence a few times. The third sentence crams in way too much information and is awkwardly worded. I like the first sentence if it is truly representative of the novel. Make sure it’s not just a gimmick.

2. Mainstream

The grandiose design of some hotels gave off the perfect ambience of both a vacation and an escape; even if never leaving the city.  David came to write away from the distractions of familiarity and the limitations to his master procrastinator tendencies.

“Some hotels” is strangely vague, adding “gave” (in past tense) threw me off as I was expecting present tense. How is a “vacation” different from an “escape”? I’m not sure, based on the awkward wording of the last sentence, if the hotel is making him more or less likely to procrastinate.

3. Thriller

Dr Dee Dee Lee swallowed half her coffee as she checked the pathology results. The tide of caffeine washed across her idling brain, replenishing and reconnecting inert synapses. She was ready to look at the patient list for the day.
First up was Jules Harris. She smiled, Jules was a practice ‘baby’.

“Dr. Dee Dee Lee” is a funny name that doesn’t seem to fit the genre. The description of the coffee/caffeine seems unnecessarily complex. Ordinary morning routines aren’t that interesting. What is a “practice ‘baby'”? This opening feels like “throat clearing,” meaning you’re probably starting too early.

4. Romance

Shit. It’s stuck. Really stuck. No matter how hard I push or pull, it doesn’t move an inch. How is this even possible? I will admit, the “out of order” sign that was taped very clumsily to the door should have been my first warning. And the fact that the toilet was tucked away in a dark corner of this venue should have been my second.

I appreciate the attempt at voice. Continuing to refer to the door as “it” in the fourth sentence feels contrived and awkward. “How is this even possible?” doesn’t seem needed to me. I would also cut “very clumsily” because both words are weakening the sentence. I’d like more indication of why being stuck has higher stakes and whether getting stuck is typical of her personality.

5. Literary

The summer I met Anna was scented with coffee.
I was twenty-two and, technically, a student. It was my last semester at the university and I had completed all of my assignments. The only thing left was graduation. I should have started applying for jobs, but I had been putting it off forever. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Whatever job I chose would probably be what I would have to do for the next forty, fifty years. That alone gave me cold feet. I wasn’t ready to commit.

The first sentence feels like it’s trying too hard and falls flat for me. The next paragraph is an info dump with pretty typical feelings about an ordinary situation. No hook.

6. Middle Grade, Mainstream

Rexis Murphy and her little brother Eli walked home from school together every day.  Block by block, they walked and talked about the day they’d both endured at school.

There’s no hook and nothing interesting for the reader to latch onto. It lacks an interesting middle grade voice.

7. Young Adult, Mainstream

The moon was bright. Moonlight came down in long streams of pale blue light, illuminating the yellow and red canvas of three circus tents. The tall spires and bright cartoon illustrations painted across the front of the tents were glowing in pale light, emitted by the naked incandescent globes strung on long lengths of metal wire. Attached to the front of the larger of the three tents, a grand big-top, a large sign stood where everyone could see it. On it, an advertisement for the World’s Wildest Live Show ft. the Soaring Summer Siblings & Company was splashed across the board in huge lettering.

Opening with the moon is cliche. Describing things/objects/settings instead of characters rarely pulls in the reader. The voice reads more like middle grade than young adult.

8. Young Adult, Mystery

Elise peeled off her dripping petticoats and wiped the pond-scum from her legs.  Her mother rushed into her room with a bucket of water.  ‘I’m sorry it’s cold; I hadn’t time to heat it.  Oh, darling!  What have you done with yourself?  Agnes, take the dog outside and keep him there.’

The dialogue doesn’t feel natural. Who is Agnes? Overall, the writing is jarring and disorienting because so little context is provided. Who is Elise? Where is she? Why is she dirty? These questions are not intriguing, but confusing because they should be answered.

9. Romance

The hair on the back of Jaxx Spark’s neck stood ramrod stiff, moments before words he had been dreading sucker punched him in the gut.

Two cliches in the first sentence: the hair on the back of his neck and the sucker punch. This doesn’t demonstrate a unique voice.

10. Thriller

The following morning, Amorie awoke in a daze. This can’t be happening, she thought to herself. She walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, leaning against one of the barstools by the bar edge of where the kitchen sink was situated on the other side.

Opening with “the following morning” makes it feel as if you accidentally submitted the second chapter instead of the first. It’s disorienting. The last sentence is extremely awkwardly worded.

What did you think?

To help your fellow Boot Campers, please vote in the poll below and leave a comment about why you did or did not want to continue reading.

Thanks! More submissions will be posted soon!

This post is a part of Novel Boot Camp. If you aren’t participating, you should be! Check it out here.

28 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 1

  1. Julie Griffith says:

    I chose #7 simply because I loved the imagery and creative descriptions. This is a great addition to the boot camp. Very helpful and realistic of what we will be facing. Looking forward to this year’s lectures and workshops as I struggle with a new manuscript this year.

  2. Rick Sherman says:

    Hi, Ellen… Sorry to interrupt your busy day/evening, but I’m just confirming you’ve received my 250 words? I was a bit confused (that’s another story yet to be written) about how to do it and don’t believe I ever got a confirmation. When you get some time, please let me know? It doesn’t matter when you get to it, I just want to make sure I sent it the right way.

    Thanks for what you’re doing! I think it’s GREAT!!!

  3. Jennifer F. Santucci says:

    I picked number 3, 4, and 8.

    #3 I agree with Ellen’s feedback about the coffee drinking. I’m not a coffee drinker, so it doesn’t appeal to me. If those sentences were cut out and went straight to the practice baby part, then the pacing would pick up. I also had the same reaction to the doctor’s name. I had to double check the genre to make sure it wasn’t humor.

    #4 I enjoy the romance genre and especially if the heroine has a strong voice. There’s potential in this one, but like Ellen said, the pushing and pulling in the first four sentences is contrived. Cutting out “How is the possible?” and maybe adding something like “Stuff like this always happens to me!” or something along those lines to indicate that perhaps this heroine manages to get stuck in awkward situations of her own doing would help with illustrating her character.

    #8 I’m also a sucker for YA! Context is definitely needed. Maybe if a little more was added to the sentence about the pond scum. Why was she there? Also, some action in between the dialogue to indicate what’s going on might help define the context and also help with the mother’s characterization. How does she enter the room? How does she handle the washcloth? Who is Agnes? How does the mother address Agnes? Like she’s a maid? Or an errant child?

    I really like how Ellen revised this part of the first 250 word exercise. It’s really helpful to see why something doesn’t work from a professional editor’s point of view. Thank you for doing this, Ellen!

  4. Chase Curtis says:

    I would keep reading number three, and maybe #4. A beginning is always the most perilous time, you have to pick the exact perfect moment to begin the story. No matter how good your book if you start it too early it will be boring and start too late and its confusing. On top of all that you have to write it in a way that it grabs a persons attention but without moving outside the voice and tone of your overall story. You can’t have a super exciting car chase in a romance about mail room attendants, but the beginning does need to grab a person it needs to promise that this story you are about to read is going to be interesting and not a huge waste of time. All in all every submission had good lines though and lots of potential.

  5. John Dawson (@johnsonofdaw) says:

    I liked 7 and 8, but that may not be good because I’m sixty something. Didn’t mind the moon cliche because it was quickly followed with colourful treatment.

    After reading Ellen’s comments on the first 10 I want to redo mine – so maybe I’ve learn’t something already. Better wait though – maybe she’ll says it’s great;-)

  6. Bob Buchko says:

    #3 stood out to me. I’m curious about the practice “baby” now and would like to see what happens next. #9 brings to mind a guilty-pleasure movie. I’d want to see what happens next not because I’m expecting literature, but because the main character’s name alone promises some freewheeling, not-too-brain-taxing fun. I’m thinking Vin Diesel or maybe a circa-1988 Arnold to play the lead. Hope there’s some literal sucker punching later in the chapter!

  7. lovessiamese says:

    I did like the opening of number 8. It was intriguing. I wanted to know why Elise was covered in mud until I read the last sentence. Now I want to know where the mystery is.

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