“I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 2

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.

Volume 1 can be found here.

“I Stopped Reading When…”

1. Young Adult, Fantasy

In a peaceful village by the sea, unburdened by the worries of modern life the people like routine. Most have got little, if anything to do. But they will always do it at the precisely the same time as they have done for as far back as they can remember. For the time, this is a good place.

 

For Albert, now far beyond his days as a fisherman, his routine consists largely of sitting in the main square and solving the world’s problems with the help of the islands other elderly inhabitants.

Both “a peaceful village” and “unburdened by the worries of modern life” feel like cliches. Other than that, I like the voice. Albert is elderly, which doesn’t really work for YA readers. If this were not YA, I might read on. As it is, I recommend opening with a teenage character.

*As an aside, all posts were formatted correctly with paragraph spacing, however despite my best efforts the spacing won’t “stick” when I post the excerpts. Please don’t blame the writers. Sorry!*

2. Fantasy

“General, have you located the subject?” Aton asked.

“No, Sir. We’ve got our top scouts on the hunt and we’ve diverted considerable resources to the new locator sphere. I’ll leave no stone unturned.” the General replied.

“I do not tolerate incompetence, and will not forgive failure. You know this,” Aton said as he removed a black rectangular box from the breast pocket of his finely tailored linen jacket.

I don’t feel a connection to either character. I don’t know the situation. I don’t know what they’re talking about. This makes it tough to pull in the reader.

3. Mystery

He wandered the streets of the old part of the town. A fine rain that started early continued making the night colder. Nothing more than you could expect from a winter December night. The streets lamp dimly illuminated the narrow alleys, casting shadows on the old buildings. A cold wind blew and he pressed his black coat against him. He shivered. He didn’t know if it was the cold wind or the excitement he was feeling that made him shivered, probably from both.

Opening with a character walking in the streets while it’s raining has been done many times so feels unoriginal. It takes too long to move on from the weather and time of day. The last line has been done many times as well so feels overly familiar. “Shivered” in the last line should be “shiver.”

4. Horror

Vigilante. That word is empowering, and Lena has come to love it. She has thought a lot about how she will do it, and she will use a knife. A gun is too impersonal. When Brutus stuck the dagger into Caesar’s stomach, he looked him in the eye. Et tu, Brute? You’re damn right.
She has a really sharp knife that will slide into him like butter. She doesn’t want to kill him, she just wants him to suffer, and she wants him to see her enjoy it. She doesn’t ever want him to forget, so tonight, she will castrate him. She looked it up, and she knows what she needs to do so he won’t die. He deserves this, she thinks, and she deserves this, too.
She read about a mother who went into a bar after her daughter’s rapist was paroled. The woman poured gasoline on him and set him on fire right where he was sitting, but she was  sentenced to 45 years in prison. Lena has decided she’ll go to jail if she has to, but it won’t be for murder. After all, she’s a model citizen with no prior record. It’ll read in the papers that she’s a hero, and to many, she will be. She will avenge her daughter, and then she will wipe her bloody hands on his shirt, and watch him as he wails and screams. Maybe she’ll smoke a cigarette. She’ll sit and watch as he bleeds just enough, and then she’ll sew him up.

I read it all, though I almost gave up after the first paragraph, which I just felt okay about. You definitely caught my attention in the second paragraph. I’d consider knocking off the first couple sentences because they pull attention away from the third line. Starting with the third sentence would have immediately drawn me in. The use of “you” in third person pulled me out of the story. I would expect to move into action very shortly after this excerpt. If that doesn’t happen, I might not stick it out.

5. Comedy

Yes. Oh yes! This feels absolutely wonderful. I shut my eyes and bite my lower lip. A sigh of pure delight escapes from my mouth while I relax. I have been waiting for this moment of release for over an hour now and it’s oh so worth it. This place is so much nicer than the dark parking lot of an abandoned gas station.
The buzzing of people down the hallway takes me out of my bubble of happiness. Apparently I didn’t close the door behind me because I was in such a hurry, but now it’s too late; my underwear is already resting on my ankles.

I thought immediately that the opening three lines were going to be a joke (sex sounds that are actually not sex sounds is a pretty common joke), then I thought she was actually doing something sexual and felt a little creeped out, then I realized that she is (I think) peeing. The sexual undertones are a bit much for a book opening and will be a turn off to many readers (pun intended) because they won’t necessarily stick around long enough to realize it’s a joke.

6. Young Adult, Fantasy

Before my mother died she told me stories of a time when Soul Catchers were hidden to the world. When catching didn’t come at a price but when second chances were given to those who deserved them; needed them. Then, soul catching was thought to be a gift to humanity. Not a service to be bought or a debt to be collected. My mother once said she believed had it not been for the existence of people like us the human race would be extinct and that as long as Catchers existed the balance between good and evil would remain in the world. She believed that a Catcher’s duty was to give life. What more could people want in a world that turns with the promise of death?

“Before my mother died she told me stories” is a super common opening line. I would prefer to see this novel start with conflict. It’s not really clear what you’re trying to describe because there is no context. I was torn on whether I wanted to read on, but the lack of action cinched it for me. I think this opening would catch a reader’s interest but probably not an agent’s.

7. Mainstream

 It has only taken FORTY-ONE years, 4 children, 1 crap load of a marriage, a Masters degree and 11 years of dedication to 1 company… FORTY-ONE fucking years!

My life was finally taking the shape of a selfish, but selfless story.

The first line feels really angry and off putting. All-caps is rarely used in fiction. All numbers should be spelled out (no digits). In the second paragraph: how can a story be both selfish and selfless? This doesn’t seem like a character I would want to read about because she sounds so bitter.

8. Literary

It was a final kind of day, like the last day of a winning streak before the beginning of something dreadful. My novel covered every surface of my corner in the bookstore office in small piles of insight and urgency. The impulse to write made sense in such a place, and I was bound to try my hand at it. Our shelves were ripe with the latest publications, and I shamelessly mined them for inspiration. I was a top spinning out of control—every word, every sentence seemed just right. Nothing could stop me. Nothing.

 

I suppose every man has a secret person who knows a part of him others do not. Mine was Vic. On the day in question, she appeared, begging me to write about what had happened. She wasn’t visible; nor, if I am honest with myself, could I even really hear her. But her pleading was felt like a whale’s song in the ocean—a low, repetitive thrum echo-locating off our formidable past. I bulldozed ahead with my own inventions, roundly ignoring the memory of her, while she simmered on my shoulder, an angel put out and of little patience. I explained to thin air that the truth was easier to write when it was someone else’s story. She sat still, a heavy presence, and I carried on.

 

Daylight ticked slowly into night. The darker it got, the faster I wrote. My novel leapt between Vienna and London. Then, back to New York behind the velveteen curtains of the Metropolitan Opera.

The second sentence caused me to stumble a bit because a single book can’t cover multiple surfaces. This led me to imagine stacks of a published novel piled around her office, which made me think she was successful. It turns out she is an aspiring writer with a scattered manuscript so this all led to a lot of confusion. I would change “novel” to something clearer like “pages of my manuscript.” The second paragraph intrigued me and sucked me in. I like the voice and read it all.

9. Romance

“But… You said… You l-loved me.” I stammered.

“I never said that.” He whispered in a harsh tone.

“It was all a game.” He said.

It was all a game. It was all a game.

I woke up feeling water droplets running down the side of my face. My heart was racing a mile an hour and I was gasping for breath.

“It was just a dream Eva, just a dream.” I whisper to myself.

The dialogue is cliche and demonstrates no characterization. Descriptions are cliche: “my heart was racing,” “gasping for breath.” Opening with a dream is cliche and not recommended.

10. Mainstream

Doctor Chris Wright was sure he wasn’t the only one to see that the paint on the corridor was beginning to flake off the wall, but he suspected he was the only one that cared. As the senior physician at Dove Break he believed patients were entitled to a pristine environment not just because it was a medically equipped facility but because it would be the last place their families would remember them.
He looked out of the window, milky with smudges. At least the view out was decent. Most of the patient rooms looked out toward the Pennines – a beautiful scene any time of year, but particularly this early in the autumn when the trees were dotted with rustic colours.

I like the voice. The first paragraph pulled me in. I liked that Chris is the “only one that cared” and that the hospital “would be the last place their families would remember them.” Both sentences present interesting information that draws the reader in. However the second paragraph feels slow to me. Almost any time a character looks out the window it feels like filler. This is highlighted because you went from interesting, important information to what feels like a disposable paragraph.

11. thriller

Her mother’s accusations sliced through her misery like a surgeon’s blade. She leaped barefoot over the last two steps of the staircase listening to the charges, “You killed him! You killed him!”
There were no multi-colored balloons drifting and scattering in the entry. No streamers wrapped around the railing or doorways. No evidence of wadded up gift paper, bows, or ribbon. No signs of sixteen candles with the ends licked clean from remnants of icing. It was just another day of terror and pain.

The lack of a named character creates distance. Is it “her” birthday? If it were her birthday presumably she wouldn’t want the candles to have already been licked. I don’t know what’s going on. The last sentence feels too dramatic.

12. Mainstream

“I need an answer Evelyn.”
I didn’t have an answer. Everything was happening too soon. I thought I had more time. “I can’t think with you badgering me. I just need some time.”

“Fine. But Evelyn, don’t wait too long.”

“I’m just asking for a fucking minute.” I hung up.

I don’t know who these characters are or what they’re talking about so their conversation doesn’t interest me. Creating intrigue does not mean writing scenes devoid of context.

13. Young Adult, Fantasy

This was the third one in two months and if someone didn’t give Violet answers soon, she was going to lose it.
She had a bottle of holy water in her hand, swinging it back and forth, taunting the vampire.

The first line is bland and has been done before so it’s not showing off a unique voice. The second line brings in a very typical vampire scenario (vampires are a very hard sell) so I’m not seeing anything unique to keep me reading.

14. Mainstream

It was an unimaginable price to pay for freedom. What did I expect as I clambered out from that muddy hole into the starless darkness, wind and rain stinging my cheeks as I braced myself against a winter I hadn’t known for ten years. My pyjamas hung like rags from my soaked skin, loose yellow cotton offering nothing but pointless modesty.

“Otto,” I called into the deafening downpour singing off the iron bellies of two water tanks that towered above the entrance to the bunker. “Where are you? Come back.”

He hadn’t stopped to say goodbye.

It was all for him that I risked everything. Perhaps I hadn’t thought it through. I hadn’t anticipated the rain. Or the mud. The mud that smothered the front of my pyjamas. Red like blood all over my hands, my face, my feet. It was for Otto that I had made this crucial mistake.

“Mother,” I said, my breath curling from my lips. “What have I done?”

I stared back down into the hole at my feet and hugged myself for warmth. Somewhere beneath me she was sleeping in the constant warmth of the bunker. No idea what her only child had just done. Ten years of safety thrown away. I was dripping with contamination and could never return.

Never. It came upon me in instant. The full impact of the mistake I had made. I was just letting Otto go to live the rest of his few days in freedom.

This opening is very intriguing. It’s by far my favorite opening so far. I really want to know what’s going on. It’s a good example of being intriguing without being annoyingly vague. I love “pointless modesty,” and that phrasing made me certain I would like the writing style. My only real complaint is that the narrator’s age is unclear.

15. Young Adult, Historical

“Damn!”
Amar grit his teeth as he stood on the edge of the woodland and watched the clay lump shoot past a tree thirteen paces from where he stood. One last one, he thought. After an hour, he had only hit his target once. He bent down to pick up another lump, with less patience. He spun it faster this time. The lump flew out of the sling and exploded leaving an orange mark on the tree. “Yes!”

There’s no hook for me. I’d like a sense of personality and conflict. I’m not connecting with the voice.

16. Young Adult, Fantasy

There was nothing Ibbie hated the most then wait for her brother. She was ready and he, as usual, late.

I’m assuming English is not your native language. This is a really tough place to be. I suggest giving your English skills a bit more time to improve. Good luck!

17. Young Adult, Fantasy

Today is my seventeenth birthday. It’s also the third anniversary of my marriage. There’s nothing special to mark the day. It’s gone much like all the others so far. I’m entombed in the women’s quarters, listening to the clatter of half a dozen weaving looms and the chatter of as many women crammed into the small space.

The first two sentences, I think, are intended to be surprising. I didn’t really catch the implication (she got married at 14) immediately. I think the full stop and the distance created by “it’s also” causes the reader to not attempt to connect the first and second sentences. Since the narrator immediately says there is nothing special about this day, it leads me to think that you started the novel here simply to include the opening two lines, which could indicate a meandering opening. I see potential for a great hook, but it needs rewording.

18. Young Adult, SciFi

“Oliver, wake up!”
Oliver Rose slowly opened his eyes to peek around his room. The sun was shining through his tinted glass windows, giving everything a shadowed appearance. He closed his eyes and slowly began to drift back off to sleep.

Opening with a character waking up is a cliche. “Giving everything a shadowed appearance” is worded awkwardly. The voice sounds more middle grade than young adult.

19. Middle Grade

Mathew sat at the back of the class and listened to the lesson.  Or, at least, he tried to listen.  He concentrated hard on what the teacher was saying.  But, it was no good.  His mind kept wandering.  Going this way and that.  Without permission.  Like a naughty child.  Mathew sighed and dragged it back again.

This illustrates a very important point that applies to not just openings but novels as a whole: if your character is bored, the reader is bored. Boredom can be used effectively (sometimes) later in a novel, but it is not a good way to get the reader interested in the character. “Naughty child” feels outdated and pulled me out of the story.

20. Mainstream

I can see that smile now, breaking across her face at the very moment when two sibling planets clunked into synchronised orbit around a dangerous sun.

I’m not sure what you mean by this description. Since this is mainstream (not SciFi), I assume this is metaphorical, but I don’t know what it’s intended to illustrate. It’s long and reads awkwardly.

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.

24 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 2

  1. writer33! says:

    I liked story 11. It feels as though there is going to be a mystery solved. I understand that the first scene is a young girl picturing her own birthday party which isn’t happening. I like the suspense.

  2. Rick Sherman says:

    Hi, Ellen. Thanks for the feedback. You gave me a great idea how fix my beginning. Since it’s a psychological suspense/thriller, it’ll actually work quite well, with more impact at the end of the story. Thanks, again!!!

  3. Cat Lumb says:

    Your comments are so apt Ellen, it makes me view my opening (one of the 20 above) in a new light and realise how right you are. Thank you so much for taking the time to read all of these – mine included – it’s hugely worthwhile for me as an individual not just to get feedback on my own, but also to see your thoughts on other openings too.

    I agree that #14 holds a very strong voice and a lot of intrigue – the first line alone suggests the theme of the novel, which is an interesting and subjective thing, and therefore instantly holds a story. I wish the author well with this one, as I’d love to read it one day!

  4. Pam Portland says:

    These openings are insightful, not only to find my own mistakes/cliches, but also to see how my character’s voice, dialogue, and observations might be interpreted by others. I’m looking forward to the third edition.

  5. Jennifer F. Santucci says:

    There are samples here that intrigued me from genres that I’ve never read which surprised me. Kudos to those authors for getting me to read outside my preferred genre!

    Here are some reasons for the ones I voted for.

    #4 Horror
    I’m not familiar with the Horror genre, but this intrigued me. I did somewhat identify with the mother’s need to avenge her daughter’s death as I am a mother as well. I didn’t make the connection that she was talking about her own daughter until the end when it’s pointed out. I think if the line “She will avenge her daughter” was moved to the first paragraph, taking out the line about Brutus, I think the rest of the mother’s rage in the paragraphs that follow will resonate more with the reader.

    #11 Thriller
    Again, I’m not familiar with the Thriller genre, but this intrigued me as well. I was intrigued by what was going on, but it was confusing. Who was the mother accusing? Who leaped barefoot? Was the party for the character leaping over the last two steps? Why was she running away? A little more context to describe the characters and the action in the scene will help clarify it.

    #17 Young Adult, Fantasy
    If the opening started at “I’m entombed in the women’s quarters…” it might make for a better hook. After giving a few more details about why this character is in the women’s quarters and why there are weaving looms, the line “Today is my seventeenth birthday. It’s also the third anniversary of my marriage.” will have more impact. I don’t think the remark of nothing special to mark the day will be needed if you show why it’s just like any other day.

    Genre?
    There were a few passages that didn’t seem to match with the genre it was labeled with. I thought it would be helpful to point this out since we’re here to help each other out. Also, the reader might expect one thing, but as they read, they might get upset when something else is delivered.

    #2 Fantasy
    This one read more like sci-fi to me. Terms like “locater sphere” and “black rectangular box” sound like items in a sci-fi setting.

    #6 Young Adult, Fantasy
    This one read like YA Paranormal to me. Souls, good vs. evil, human race and Soul Catchers read like a paranormal setting.

    #14 Mainstream
    This one read more like Speculative Fiction/Dystopian/Sci-Fi. I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Mainstream fiction, so maybe my understanding for this sample is misguided. Here are the details that lead me to think it was Speculative Fiction/Dystopian/Sci-Fi: the character climbing out of a muddy hole after being inside it for ten years; the mother sleeping in the bunker; ten years of safety thrown away; dripping with contamination and could never return; letting Otto go to live the rest of his few days in freedom.

  6. Dean says:

    I think for me, #4 was my favorite because it made me think of an antihero. I felt sympathy for the character, and also was intrigued by the aggression expressed.

  7. Jeff Ziegler says:

    Ellen, would you be willing to pick a book or two from your personal favorites that stand out and critique it just like this? A few good examples of this done well would be helpful.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      There are several good examples of effective openings from participants that I pointed out above. If a novel is traditionally published, it most likely has an effective opening for its genre and voice.

      Look at several openings of published books in the genre you write. There is no need to seek out exceptional openings. An effective opening is very dependent on genre and voice so other novel openings won’t necessarily set a good example to follow if they aren’t suited to your style and genre. I can talk about novel openings that I like but it’s unlikely those openings will be relevant to you. The best openings do something original without going too far out on a limb. What that means for your work depends on what you’re doing. I hope this makes sense!

  8. johnsonofdaw says:

    I’ll pick on the ones I liked most.

    4. Finished better than it started.

    6 The Book Thief ?

    8. Novels about writing novels always sound self indulgent to me.

    10. It’s hard to make palliative care appealing.

    11. Something was missing and Ellen named it.

    14 I have a personal peeve about adjectives like “unimaginable”. If it really was you couldn’t talk about it.

    17. If I hadn’t been told the genre was Young Adult Fantasy I would have taken it for something heart wrenchingly serious.

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