**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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