**An incorrect version of this post was up for a few minutes earlier this morning. My blog’s scheduling system is posting things at the wrong time. My apologies!**
When 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.
Volume 2 can be found here.
“I Stopped Reading When…”
1. Middle Grade, Thriller
The man, known by different names, and right then as Afolabi, kicked at the grit on the road. One month ago, dressed in skins, feathers and beads, he’d beaten on his drums, fallen into a meditative trance and called upon his ancestors to tell him the whereabouts of this boy. Their message had finally come to him in a dream: the boy lives in a cold land, near a river, in a tall building. And he’d tracked him down to Bristol.
This doesn’t read like middle grade because it feels too serious and mature. Starting with an adult rather than a child is risky. The first sentence starts out strong, but the last clause fizzles and feels like you aren’t starting during genuine action or conflict. The vocabulary may feel a bit daunting to young readers.
2. Young Adult, Mystery
Sixteen-year-old Eloise Grimmins’ translucent eyes followed the soft afternoon light as it trailed against her desk from her first library’s ten-foot window. The muffled sounds came from her private tutor lecturing on the diplomacy issues from so-and-so country next door.
The first sentence is too long and feels like purple prose. What does it mean to have translucent eyes? What is a “first library”? Opening with a character who is bored is rarely a good idea.
3. Young Adult, Historical
Erik Thorvald was stuck in a rock.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to him, but that didn’t make the experience any more pleasant. He smelled the familiar scent of limestone as the sharp, chalky edges pressed against the place where his neck met his chin. His lungs burned as he exhaled the last of his breath, and he felt the spent air pushing out around his cheeks and eyes. His eyes tried in vain to take in enough light to see, but the blackness was absolute. He was completely sealed in.
The first sentence caught my interest. “Familiar scent” in the third sentence tells the reader that this has happened before so the second sentence seems disposable. Rather than “place where his neck met his chin,” I would simplify to “the underside of his chin” or just “his neck.” The “spent air pushing out around his cheeks and eyes” is a description I don’t understand. “Eyes” is used twice very close together which is clunky. In the second last sentence, “his eyes” didn’t try in vain, he tried in vain. His eyes aren’t autonomous. I’m curious about the premise, but the writing needs cleaned up.
His wings opened, and he floated. His small eyes closed as the swell of air combed through his black feathers and chilled his skin. So much was written on the wind this morning, information bombarded his senses, rain was coming. He opened his beak and let his caw rush into the fast moving current of air swirling around him. Below, tiny, like an ant, she moved slowly through the garden, stopping to watch him when she heard his call. He twisted and dove to show off for her, he knew she loved to watch him and the wind dance together. Her desire to join him pleased his pride. It wouldn’t be for a while yet, he would wait to call to her until it was time to move on.
Eve looked up at the crow and watched him sail on the air currents.
Why open with the crow instead of Eve? The descriptions of the crow grew boring a couple sentences into the first paragraph but I kept reading to confirm that it was a description of a bird and not some sort of mythical creature. This opening paragraph doesn’t set a strong tone, introduce conflict, or provide a hook. Unless a considerable amount of your novel focuses on the crow, this opening feels misleading and unnecessary.
Nyalis could hear the birds, and their calls sent a shiver up his spine.
It was a sound normally welcomed within the confines of the forest, but not tonight. Tonight, it was a dreadful sound, a sound that sent his heart to racing, kept his feet in motion, and gave him cause to question whether or not he would see another sunrise.
Nyalis makes me think of the drug Cialis, but maybe that’s just me? The second sentence has a formula that is very common: “It was normally/usually one way, but not tonight.” This doesn’t show off your voice. The third sentence feels too vague and falls back on cliches: “heart racing,” “kept his feet in motion,” “see another sunrise.” These phrases don’t emotionally connect with readers because they are overly familiar.
6. Middle Grade, Fantasy
Another fire, noted the girl. In her orange coat—threadbare, with sleeves two seasons too short—she was the only spot of color in the empty, gray street. The news bulletins, dumped carelessly at the street corners, announced the morning headlines: “FIRE WRECKS GOBLIN TREASURY: CHIEF RECKRAGE BLAMES GENERAL HIST” and “DROUGHT NOW AT DAY 57.” As the girl swept past, the papers scattered like panicked beetles before her, and in the distance, a bell began to toll. She hurried forward.
She would have been on time had the small square of white not caught her eye. It was so bright that it seemed a tiny window had opened up in the lonely street. The girl discovered it was an envelope, but when she tried to pick it up, it wouldn’t budge. She wondered why someone would glue an envelope to the ground (not suspecting, of course, that it really weighed 172 pounds), but when she tugged on the envelope, it came up quite suddenly, lightly, and obediently. Turning it about, she saw a single word: “Penrod.” A look of disbelief crossed her features. She was about to pry the envelope open when the bell stopped ringing. The girl uttered an unprintable word, stuffed the envelope in her pocket, and raced toward the brick building down the street.
And that is how Sally E. Penrod arrived tardy, for the third time that month, at the School of Last Resort for Delinquents with a 172-pound Rypkrykian goblin in tow.
I have good news and bad news. The good news: I love your voice! The bad news: I was a hair’s breath away from bailing after the first paragraph. I would scrap this paragraph and start over. She notes the fire, but so what? Why does it matter? “The only spot of color” is pretty common phrasing so it doesn’t show off your voice. “Reckrage” initially looked like a strange verb rather than a name so it caused a momentary stumble. The papers scattering is worded in such a way that it could be taken as literal or metaphorical. I love “the girl uttered an unprintable word” and it made me want to read more of your voice.
The coach was travelling along the Bath Road at a remarkable pace. Great clouds of dust were being kicked up by the pair of horses. The elegance of the carriage was apparent in spite of the film of dust that had settled on it and the liveried coachman attested to the wealth of its inhabitants. The brisk pace was perhaps a little unwise, not least for the comfort of the four passengers within, in particular for young Ned. In the two hours since leaving Marlborough, where they had stopped at an inn to dine, the carriage had become an oven.
That morning Ned’s uncle had indulged the two boys with sixpence each.
Traveling along a road is a very common opening. The description of the coach doesn’t interest me. The immediate jump into back story in the second paragraph seems like you’re asking for a lot of patience from your reader. Without a hook, the reader isn’t going to stick through back story.
I was seriously considering making “Hurry” my middle name as I dashed up the stairs of the subway station in a pencil skirt and high heels. Emma Hurry James had a ring to it. Plus, I’d always held it against my parents that they hadn’t given me a middle name.
The first sentence could work with different supporting sentences. The point of her taking “Hurry” as her middle name is, I assume, to illustrate that this is a personality trait rather than a one-time occurrence. But the next two sentences seem to miss the point by focusing on the sound of the name and the fact that she doesn’t have a middle name. You’re missing an opportunity to bring forth lateness as a personality trait. If it isn’t a personality trait, I would craft a new opening paragraph entirely.
“I’ve decided to quit,” I said as I swabbed coffee rings from the remaining table.
“Uh huh,” Lisa said from behind me, her voice soft and distant.
She was engrossed in a magazine, elbows propped on the front counter next to a tub of dirty coffee cups, her thin shoulders hunched forward as she pored over the glossy pages. It was one of those thought-provoking celebrity gossip magazines. I could tell by her face—lips parted, eyes round and staring—it was the same look rubberneckers got when driving past a car accident. They wanted to be shocked, they wanted to see blood.
The paragraph describing Lisa looking at the magazine could be cut in half. I would like at least some indication of why the narrator wants to quit her job. An indication of personality would also be nice.
25 Weeks before the Ordeal
According to our Mothers, Lyse Tancred was born on Earth in a district called England, and submitted to the Ordeal on Luna in about 2139. That was when it all began, they say, the final struggle for the Female Future and the survival of femalekind. But why do the starship’s surviving datacore files mention only a struggle for humankind. And why can’t we find anything about Lyse Tancred? Is she just another myth? To whom shall we turn in our despair?
– ARTEMISIA OF SOURCE-ATHENA, YEAR 252,
I’m guessing that this is an intro before you get to the meat of the story. I personally don’t find this style of intro helpful, but others might disagree. I’m confused about how the datacore files “mention only a struggle for humankind.” Doesn’t “humankind” include “femalekind”? It’s not clear at the beginning (nor really at the end) where this text came from. Is it a book, a diary, or just first-person narration?
Reymond looks down the scope of the sniper rifle and curses God, wars and deserts. If he’s ever going to break the spell he needs the book but conflict and misfortune dog his steps. He’s holed up in a shallow cave, little more than a hole in the side of a scrub filled valley. At some point the valley has been used to herd sheep, or goats and the whole area, especially the cave, stinks of animal.
The second sentence reads more like a query letter than a line from a novel. In the last sentence “the valley has been used” should be “the valley was used.” You mention that he’s in a shallow cave and that it stinks, but you haven’t mentioned how Reymond feels and perceives the situation. It would be stronger to describe Reymond feeling claustrophobic or exposed and smelling the stench of the animals.
The big seaplane droned on towards the bright orange setting sun. Viewed from the front, the long wing of the Martin Clipper looked like two long dog ears sticking straight out, covering a pair of goggles and a long snout. The upper wing was joined to two shorter lower wing-like areas by four diagonal bars. Four Pratt and Whitney propellers turned in unison, making a single sound.
The first sentence feels disposable. It’s not unique or compelling. The end of the second sentence – “covering a pair of goggles and a long snout” – reads awkwardly and I’m not sure what you’re describing. The description “two shorter lower wing-like areas” reads awkwardly.
“Block the attack! Get into the mind of your opponent” The fighting masters voice boomed across the gym, emphasising the points from the theory lesson this morning. Watch your opponent as they move, figure out their next move before they know what their next move is.
Adams staff, for that’s what we were fighting with, blurred in motion, almost becoming impossible to track.
The opening dialogue doesn’t feel original. The last sentence of the first paragraph is unnecessary and redundant. The next paragraph reads as if they are fighting with “Adams staff” rather than with staffs.
Jerry looked FBI Agent Carter directly in the eye, “Have you ever reached a point in your life where you know that if you don’t move forward you will be lost forever”? He waited but the agent didn’t respond. The man just stared at him. “I was tired of running, tired of being afraid. I’d been running all of my life. I thought I was running from other people, or places, but the simple truth is, I was running from myself.”
Every line of dialogue is cliche. Try to open with what is unique and different about your character. If your dialogue sounds like something you’ve heard somewhere else, then it needs to be changed.
Greyn’s dogs whined and strained at their harnesses, scrambling to dig their claws into the ice as they pulled the sled up the eastern slope of the Laskyn Valley toward the icefield. Greyn looked up from under his fur lined hood as a gust of wind whipped a cloud of tiny ice crystals into his face.
“Frost!” He wiped his stinging eyes. His cheeks burned. He envied his dogs their fur-covered faces.
Ahead of him, Tardra urged his team up the slope, cracking his whip above their heads, his shoulders heaving, as his team chuffed clouds of white breath into the crisp morning air.
They hadn’t come up the eastern slope for years. There was no reason. All the hot spring valleys were to the west. Only empty ice lay out this way. What Tardra was so insistent about him seeing, only the spirits knew.
When they reached flat ice they rested. As soon as they stopped, the dogs lay down, always taking every opportunity for rest.
Greyn scanned the horizon. Gray ice merged with gray cloud and produced a band of darkness where the eastern mountains should be. There were no trails in the snow on this side. It was desolate.
“What in Frigid’s name could you possibly find out here?” he said.
Tardra looked at him and smiled, saying nothing.
“Just tell me what the frost it is, and we can get on with our work,” said Greyn.
Though I can’t say that I’m blown away by the voice, there was nothing that particularly jarred me out of the story either. I would keep reading, but would expect to encounter a strong hook very soon. The opening sentence feels too long to me. I’m not sure why he says “Frost” when the ice hits his eyes so that reads a little awkwardly.
16. Young Adult
Rebecca Hart felt a pang of guilt; she knew her sister wasn’t fooled by her. When she’d told Amelia that she was going to spend the night at Carly’s she received a knowing look and a “be careful” from her sister.
To avoid more questions, Rebecca decided to wait for her friend outside and the autumn air chilled her bare legs. After a short while, a girl in a beat up car pulled into the driveway blasting music. The girl’s name was Carly Santoro.
I feel no connection to Rebecca. The writing lacks voice. The first two sentences both have awkward and unnecessary endings: “by her” and “from her sister.”
Aurora, Indiana — 1:30 a.m.
The rain pounded down in sheets, cutting sideways against the windows. The Mini Cooper’s wipers pumped out a steady rhythm as Sarah Kenmore drove down Main Street to work. Weather in Indiana was typically dreary and tonight was no exception. Something flashed in the glowing headlights. Oh God! Sarah slammed on the brakes.
She stopped the car a few feet from the silver sedan that was rocking on its roof, in the middle of the street.
The time and location stamp don’t seem needed. Opening with traveling on a road is pretty common as is opening with rain. The line that starts with “weather in Indiana” doesn’t seem needed since the weather was already described. The reader needs to be more connected to Sarah. How does she feel? What is she doing? What’s going on in her life? Give the reader something about her to latch onto rather than relying on the situation alone to create intrigue.
I watched them from across the room with my hands in my pockets, my fists two weapons.
I was on Madison Avenue at Barney’s for an appointment with my stylist, had to do a fitting for an appearance I’d booked for the next week. I didn’t know that she’d have company.
Carter didn’t see me standing in the doorway because she was too busy smiling and flirting with her new friend. He was dressed professionally with a briefcase by his side, had his suit jacket unbuttoned. He couldn’t have been more than five-seven, looked like Ryan Seacrest with a bad metabolism, carrying most of his weight in his midsection. He could’ve been my age, might’ve been older. It was hard to tell.
The first line doesn’t catch my interest because I don’t feel that her fists can be weapons if they are in her pockets. The second paragraph makes me think this character is going to be vain (since she makes “appearances” and has a “stylist”). For me, a vain character needs to be really fun to read about with a lot of personality and I’m not getting that right now. The third paragraph spends a long time describing a character the narrator doesn’t know. I want to know more about the narrator and her motivation rather than read descriptions of a supporting character.
19. Young Adult, scifi
Guntta took a bunt at the gross larval head sticking up through the sand on Lanchach beach. “Those dammed beach worms; sting your toes right off if you’re not careful!” Solanoid, walking next to Guntta, looked over at Guntta with a confused look. “Then why did you kick it with your toe?”
“Dammit Solanoid! Stop asking and just do! I don’t think you could tell a beach worm stinger from a scorpion stinger.”
“Can too!” yelled Solanoid, as he beamed Guntta in his one ugly eye.
The voice sounds more like middle grade than young adult. In the first sentence, I didn’t initially understand what you meant by “bunt.” I think that word could be replaced with something clearer. “He beamed Guntta in his one ugly eye” is worded confusingly. Do you mean he “beamed at” him or that he hit him in the eye? I would like more of a connection to the main character (I think that’s Guntta?) and some indication of why this moment is creating genuine and meaningful conflict for the character.
When sun and moon unite as one, what is hidden will be undone.
The sun’s molten orb vanished from view plunging daylight into darkness. Thick gloom swallowed the valley and a frigid cold descended. The fusion of night and day left no stone, mountain or river untouched. The unseen hand of fear drew the native festivities to a halt and spurred the tribe to gather at the temple steps. Wails and chants rose like a thunderous wave on high seas. Eager to appease the gods, the tribe offered vows of endless sacrifices to invoke mercy from the stars.
Describing the sun and moon always feels pretty generic. Rhyming fantasy prophecies (which is what I’m assuming the first line is) feel cliche. This seems like a prologue to me that could most likely be cut.
What did you think?
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This post is a part of Novel Boot Camp. If you aren’t participating, you should be! Check it out here.
15 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” First Page Edition – Volume 3”
Dear #13 and anyone else writing about physical confrontations/fist fights/sword fights/gun fights:
Forget “getting into the mind of your opponent”.
2. If your fantasy character really can get into the mind of an opponent, while he’s probing the guy’s mind, he’s already been punched a dozen times. [The concept of time when you’re in a physical confrontation is totally different from the spectator’s sense of time.]
3. If you don’t have any martial arts training, your fight scenes will not make sense to anyone who has, so either play journalist and piece together elements of real fights you’ve seen, (YouTube is overflowing with them), or pull selections from expert testimony, or leave the detailed fight scene out altogether and simply mention it without detail, e.g.: “That dude really kicked your butt yesterday at blank. You should really work on improving X skill.”
In your opinion do you think it would be better to just show the main character getting beat? As in landing on the mat and then having the conversation that follows?
Depends on the situation. In choosing which scenes to keep and which to toss, from what I’ve learned, if it moves the story forward, do it. If it enriches the reader’s understanding of the character, shows his/her status in relationship to the other characters at that moment with the expectation that said status will change or at least be challenged in the story’s future, do it. If it’s a distracting or insignificant tangent, drop it. You know the trajectory of your story, so you have to make the call.
Thanks Ellen! I actually made some edits already (#3) to address the issues you brought up. There’s definitely a reason for the air to be pressing against Erik’s skin, and I’m reworking to get that a bit further up & to clarify it. On a macro level, I’m debating if I even want to do a cold open like this, or if I want to provide a bit more orientation for the reader. I bet that, reading this opening, you wouldn’t have guessed this was a time travel novel. Now, is that a bad thing…? TBD lol!
Thanks for that advice 🙂
I wasn’t to sure if I should open with Magic training or physical training. I thought that physical would be easier on the reader than dropping them straight into a new magic system. As you can tell I don’t know anything about martial arts. I didn’t want my character to be good at them either but I guess that it just showed I know nothing about fighting haha.
Thank you once again 🙂
Sorry I posted that to the wrong comment. XD That was to Stephanie
I was immediately interested in him being stuck in a rock. I was wondering, after I re-read it, if this is a Douglas Adams Dirk Gently-esque novel. It’s quite humorous that he’s stuck in a rock, but then the next paragraph sounds very dramatic. I would read more, even if just to find out if it were a comedy or drama.
Submissions I voted for and feedback:
#3 Young Adult, Historical
I liked the first sentence too. The author did a great job capturing the moment. By the end of the paragraph, I felt trapped too. For the “spent air” phrase, maybe simplify it to “he exhaled the last of his breath, and he felt it push out around his cheeks and eyes.”
I didn’t think how the character’s name was similar to the name of the drug until Ellen pointed it out. But I was pronouncing it (in my head) Ny-liss. I really enjoy the Fantasy genre and love openings that begin with action. I like the tone set here, but to maybe help bridge an emotional connection to the reader, a few details about the character’s emotional state sprinkled in might help and also build up the tension to this character’s actions.
#6 Middle Grade, Fantasy
Of all the entries, this one caught my attention right away. The voice is strong. I have a feeling the fire might be significant later. As a reader, I’d be willing to let it play out to see what happens. But since this exercise is about sustaining the attention of an agent or editor, Ellen’s suggestion about the first paragraph makes sense. What is the significance of the newspaper headlines being mentioned in the first paragraph of the first chapter? Is it information that could be moved to a later part of the scene or chapter? The part that I thought started taking off was when she found the envelope.
I liked the opening sequence here, but as Ellen pointed out, the voice doesn’t come through yet. As a reader, I would continue reading this because I enjoy Fantasy and this seems like the kind of story that I’d be willing to let play out to get to the action. But for the purpose of this exercise, maybe include a few details about the urgency to get to the destination and also the emotional state of one of the MC. Why is Greyn following Tardra through icy weather? Why haven’t they been to the eastern slope for years? We get a glimpse near the end of the scene, but maybe a few details near the beginning might help with voice.
I didn’t vote for these submissions, but I wanted to offer some feedback. Hope these writers don’t mind!
This intrigued me because of the descending date note at the top. I’ve seen this used in other novels (Looking for Alaska pops up in my mind) and it really can be powerful when the countdown ends (if tension was built and the payoff is satisfactory). Also, I’ve seen journal entry techniques used in stories (Mistborn comes to mind) and it also is a good technique when used well. I think to make more of an impact, if you left in the sentence “[But] why can’t we find anything about Lyse Tancred?” after the sentence about “female kind” and took the rest of the other sentences out about humankind and the myth and despair (save it maybe for a different entry), it would flow better.
I love an opening action sequence, but this opening is telling us the action—telling us what the MC has learned about fighting and telling us what type of fighter he’s become. Rather then telling the reader, show the reader how the MC puts his training to use.
#16 Young Adult
I wasn’t pulled in to this beginning, but I wanted to comment because YA is my favorite genre. To add to Ellen’s comments, it’s hard to feel a connection to Rebecca because the emphasis is on creating a sense of mystery instead of why we should care about Rebecca. Why does she feel guilty? What does her sister know? Why is she sneaking out? Why do we need to know who Carly Santoro is? Although the intent may have been to entice the reader with these questions to read further, the reader doesn’t know enough about Rebecca to become invested in what happens to her to keep reading.
This didn’t grab my attention until the second paragraph. If the story started with the image of the car rocking on its roof in the middle of the street with the MC already there and the reader experiencing her reaction to the accident, it might make for a more compelling start.
6 and 15 had the strongest voices. They also both created worlds that drew me in. I did stumble on 6 when the POV shifted and MC’s expression is described even though it is written from her POV. Hard to see your own grimace. It’s a small thing but it did make me stop and think on it and that stopped the flow.
In 15 I also stumbled on the Frost comment, otherwise I was along for the ride.
I enjoyed 6 and would read it with my kids, but I was confused about the envelope being stuck to the ground and suddenly coming free. What if she tries to lift it but can’t, then a puff of wind blows the corner up as if it’s lighter than air. Something to show how it can be simultaneously heavy and light.
I felt like #4 would have been better as the opening to a film. It’s more of a visual trick though. I feel like once the little scene with the bird was over, it would a little easy to put it down, because there’s no hint of a dilemma. I will say that I really liked the voice though. It seemed to flow quite naturally.
#10 I liked your voice and the peculiar set up. I think if you just gave a hint of the main character’s personality, it would be perfect.
Thank you for taking the time to read the submission and for making the suggestions.
I liked number 6. I like the fact that the scene is set, conflict intimated, and then Sally E. Penrod’s name and residence are given. This is a story I think I would enjoy.
#4 I read all of this and noticed: his, he, his, his, his, his, he, his, him, she, him, she, his, he, her, he, she, him, her, him, his, it, he, her, it, him. Remove most of them to help the magic emerge. Repeat throughout novel. Also, a crow is not much admired, so it makes me think she is a little odd. If that’s the plan, great.
#6 I like the idea, and the payoff was nice, but this was quite hard to read and requires polish. The second para has plenty of “it”, which can give away haste.
#7 I think stronger words are required to fit the scene. There are horses flying in the first paragraph, so “travelling”, “remarkable”, “apparent”, “attested” and “unwise” cannot keep up with them. Also, repeats: coach…coachman, dust…dust, pace…pace, carriage….carriage.
#9 Nothing is happening. So however well this opening is written, I don’t care.
#15 My favorite. Great to start with the dogs, where the real drama is. The opening could stay here longer. We don’t need to see Greyn’s face until paragraph three or four. We know he’s MC and back there because his name is word one.
I think the whole second para should be Tardra’s team. We don’t need to see him either, because he too is named. Give us time to picture the two teams hauling huge sleds up ice slopes and the two MCs will naturally thunder into view. The insider details, like the dogs lying straight down, I enjoyed most of all.
However, you are missing Conflict. Your only antagonist is the weather. That might be OK if they’re fighting a storm, but frost doesn’t cut it. More hardship required.
#20 I really like the first line, provided the promise is delivered. Now this opening could jump straight to the tribe, because people are more engaging than things, and show us the work the unseen hand of fear by their reactions to the darkening.