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.
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Volume 3 can be found here.
“I Stopped Reading When…”
Carol tried not to fidget as the doctor felt her breast. He seemed to linger longer than necessary, certainly longer than he had on the other breast.
“You’ve only ever had one mammogram?”
“Yes. Two years ago, when I turned 40. I thought I didn’t need another one for at least five years.”
He was still kneading her breast.
“Actually, we recommend every year after age 40. And I feel an area—it’s probably nothing, but better to be sure. I’ll write down…”
The first sentence made me smile, but the dialogue feels bland. Cancer books are a tough sell because there are so many of them. Readers know how the typical cancer story plays out so it’s a topic that requires a unique approach to attract attention. I would try to squeeze more of what makes you unique into this opening.
James entered the house and stopped himself from calling out. Beth’s car was in the garage, but the lights were off and all was quiet, so he knew she was there, resting.
He found her on the sofa, curled under her favorite afghan. He didn’t make a sound, but she awoke with a start when he entered. She quickly raised the cover, looking for blood.
“Looking for blood” could be taken as literal or metaphorical (like when someone is “out for blood”) so I would clarify. The voice feels too neutral and unemotional. There’s nothing to connect to.
The baby crawling across the floor stopped and swatted at the dust particles dancing in the sunlight. He was fat, with dimpled cheeks and soft, blond curls. He said “Om, ma ma ma.”
Katie watched her baby boy play. She loved him so much.
The voice isn’t strong/unique. I would focus on Katie rather than the baby. “She loved him so much” is too generic and simplistic.
4. Young Adult, fantasy
A chalk circle around a dead mouse won’t stop the ants from coming to feed on its little furry brown corpse. That’s just something someone made up and all the mothers in the world tell it to their kids but ants will march right across that damn chalk line without a care. However, a chalk circle and some blood will bring the mouse back to life if you’re the right kind of freak.
I stumbled on this ability quite innocently enough when I was seven years old. Our cat had decimated this poor mouse. I tried to sew it back up with mom’s sewing needle and some thread which in hindsight was probably a cruel act of torture.
“Aaah a cat got me, tore me to bits, scratched and clawed me, bit me and ripped me open! That’s got to be the end of it. Time to shuffle off this mortal coil oh wait….some crazy kid is trying to sew me back together! Ouch! That bloody well hurts STOP! AAAAHH!!!”
I see the beginnings of a great voice, which is what kept me reading, but I think it still needs some work to really shine. The first paragraph confused me. Every mom in the world tells their kid about a chalk line around a dead mouse? I can’t imagine why this scenario would ever occur. I assume your fantasy is not set in the real world? This should be clarified. Personally, I would like to know who is narrating to provide context/meaning.
5. Middle Grade
Karo Day was buckled into the thinly padded, non-reclining, passenger seat of a stale smelling, bottom-of-the-line moving van. She was traveling with her mother. In the back of the van, amongst a smattering of their old furniture and a mound of hastily packed boxes, was a small, silver trinket. It was flattish, oval shaped, and bore the upraised image of a tiny angel. All of yesterday, while Karo and her mother loaded their belongings into the bargain-priced rental, the tarnished trinket had gone unnoticed.
“Tell me again why we’re moving,” Karo said.
I’m not sure why the trinket is brought up only to be immediately dismissed. I like that you are developing a voice, but the first sentence feels too long, and the first paragraph fails to establish a connection to the main character. I initially thought “Karo Day” was some kind of strange holiday. Personally, I’m not a fan of uncommon names and “Karo” makes me think of Karo syrup.
Faith Wainwright draped her jacked over the back of the tall barstool. Dozens of beer signs spilled neon lights across the exposed brick walls of the renovated warehouse-turned-bar. Always on the lookout for new settings for the erotic romance novels she secretly penned, she looked around the room, taking in the details in case she needed to recall the space later. Long high-top tables filled most of the room and a band was setting up on the stage by the back wall. The place was about half full of grad students. Classic rock music flowed through the speakers, loud enough to hear, but not loud enough to prevent conversation. Thankfully the rowdier undergrads preferred the dive bars closer to campus.
At this point, I don’t care that Faith writes erotic novels so I would cut that. This is more description of the bar than I care about or want to sit through. Show me why Faith is a character worth reading about. I’m not getting a sense of conflict or personality.
The mountain went by many names, but Despara’s people had always called the smoking giant Vsona. Kisthari legend held that the last dragon, fleeing from the poachers and glory seekers who had hunted the great winged beast for decades, flew to the island of Kisthar, the largest island in the Ring of Flame, and clawed its way back into the earth. The dragon, having punctured the core of the earth, released a flow of lava, and the earth, welcoming its last child home, forced the lava up and up to hide the resting place of Vsona.
I’m not really a fan of opening with legends. Without context, they don’t carry a lot of meaning. It’s also a bit too common of an opening in fantasy novels. I would rather connect with a main character.
It’s difficult to pinpoint, and I often try, the moment I started loving my daughter. I like to pretend it was when she fluttered inside me for the first time. Or when I cradled her tiny body in my arms seconds after birth. The truth is, my love for her started much later in her life, when the reality of her conception faded enough for me to see only her, when I realized she, like me, was a survivor.
Probably, though, there was no one moment. Likely, an aggregation of collected moments, many of them, coming at the expense of her vulnerability: when she suffered through her first bout with colic, or her fussiness over cutting three teeth simultaneously—moments when a maternal stew of emotions and hormones hummed through me, signaling that it was normal for me to love her and reminding me over and over again that having her was well worth the cost.
I watch her now, playing down by the water, and remember why I questioned my love. Her long hair catches in the breeze, whipping sandy strands across her golden face, her unafraid avocado eyes watching, waiting for the next wave. These features—his features—were all I remember about him. And yet, what I didn’t know I see in her, like a window into a stranger’s soul. Her drawings always resemble, a bit too perfectly, her intended goal. A dog. A tree. A house. Talent you’re born with not taught. And I often wonder if she didn’t eat fish because he didn’t or if she loved to swim because he did. One thing is for sure: she was all him and none of me. And that single thought terrified me.
I read the whole thing. The first sentence immediately pulled me into the story. I love the voice, but it’s not 100% there yet. A couple of phrasings caused me to stumble. For example, in the end of the first paragraph, “started much later in her life” could just be “started much later,” but I also don’t like “started” because it feels too bland. The writing could be punched up here and there, but you’ve definitely got a lot going for you.
The end came with surprising swiftness. Cheers rose from the Arkan ships as the huge rocks they had catapulted slammed into the two Colossi that had protected the Avarrian capital for centuries. Each of the statues stood one thousand two hundred sacred inch tall, their feet planted firmly on two large pedestals, pointy ears stuck high in the air and their blue crystal eyes directed at all who entered the harbor since the beginning of time.
The first line is a cliche. I don’t know if the Arkans are good or bad, which means I don’t know where to place my empathy. There are some wording/phrasing issue, such as “one thousand two hundred sacred inch tall,” which is really awkward.
10. young adults
Emma’s eighteenth birthday was one week away and she couldn’t help but wonder if she would be allowed to bath herself then. Emma didn’t dare ask her mother, though. She lacked the courage.
Emma lay inside the bathtub, staring at the graying white ceiling while her mother kneeled on the gleaming tile floor, rubbing Emma’s legs with a duck shaped sponge.
The creep factor is way too high for me here, especially for young adult fiction. “Bath” should be “bathe” in the first sentence.
11. Young Adult, mystery
“Hello. Social convention dictates that as customary in meeting new people – so I guess I have to say that. My name is Alec Foster – most people find it ironic seeming as how I’m an orphan and have been since I was nine. My mother died from cancer and my father in drunken car accident. I think it was just my parent’s way of warning me before things went left.”
The second sentence was extremely jarring and confusing and I had to read it twice. Even then, it doesn’t have enough of a hook to be worth the awkwardness. Opening with an introduction is often considered cliche. Orphans are so common in fiction that they are not a selling point so putting that up front doesn’t add anything. Opening with back story doesn’t suck the reader in unless the voice is superb. The last line doesn’t make logical sense.
12. Middle Grade, literary
“We’ll make our escape when it’s dark, Percy.” This muffled announcement came from a young girl crawling backwards out from under an iron-framed bed. Unoni stood and wiped her hands on a shapeless dress. Her hands left dust bunnies clinging to the rough muslin, but it made little difference–dirt and grime already embedded the fabric. She turned to face Percy, who fiddled with a well-fashioned, hand-carved whistle dangling from a frayed string around his neck.
The boy fixed his round, blue eyes on the older girl’s darker ones. “I’m a lot littler than you. What if I don’t make it, ‘Noni”? Her hazel eyes crinkled as she returned his gaze. She loved how he mispronounced her name.
Opening with Percy’s name makes the reader align with Percy rather than Unoni even though she is the one speaking. “Well-fashioned” isn’t needed in the last sentence of the first paragraph because it clutters the sentence. I was surprised that Percy is younger, mostly because I imagined him as the protagonist because his name was mentioned first.
A bright flash preceded an utter silence as he flung himself from his body and into the electric pathways of the Focus Net. Using the Nanites he had deconstructed the contents of his own mind compiling the information into so many ones and zeros and storing it within their memory banks.
He traveled as discrete packets of compressed data. But this was no ordinary transfer to a nearby vessel. This time he wasn’t switching bodies for work or pleasure. This time he was attempting a journey of over three hundred light years, a journey that only one out of a hundred ever survived.
“An utter silence” reads oddly to me. I would write simply “utter silence.” That said, I would put his action first and the flash second to draw the reader in with action. The second sentence is too long. Personally, I like a bit of time to warm up to a novel before being introduced to scifi terms. You can describe what’s happening without the terms initially. The second paragraph feels like it’s trying to describe too much (by mentioning his ordinary experiences) and the result is that it’s vague about what he’s doing now. I want to know more about him and why I should be invested in what he’s doing. How does he feel? Where is he? Who is he?
The sound of breaking glass and muffled whispers in the kitchen woke me from a sound sleep. I instinctively reached my hand out to quiet Janice, only to find the sheets cold. Wait a minute, that’s okay. Janice is at work. As an ER nurse, she alternated twelve-hour day shifts with twelve-hour night shifts. I wasn’t used to it because she hadn’t worked for almost ten years, and it was only when our youngest daughter, Sami, was in her senior year of high school that she went back.
You open with an interesting scenario – waking up to what seems like intruders – but then you spend the rest of the paragraph justifying why he reached for Janice. I’d rather cut out his attempt to touch Janice and focus on the tension created by the potential intruders.
15. Young adult, scifi
There was no such thing as silence to an agent.
Zora drew shallow breaths, tuning into the finger drumming of the lieutenant at her right – the impatient one two, one two, ingrained in their biology.
An equipment bag shuffled at her left as a technician pushed the air in front of him, staring at the sheen of opaque blue that met his fingertips.
The first line is vague because I don’t know if Zora is an agent or if she’s with an agent. Is the finger tapping and lack of silence the most interesting part of this scene? I feel like there is something more interesting that could be used as a hook. “An equipment bag shuffled” reads like the bag is moving on its own. I don’t know anything about Zora, where she is, or what she wants. There is not enough context and no real hook.
“Oh no! No no no no NO! Crap!” Violet watched helplessly as the spreadsheet on her computer screen pixelated then faded to black. The hard drive buzzed ominously, then went silent. “Double crap!” She slammed the laptop shut and tossed it next to her on the bed.
The clock on her bedside table read 3:15AM. “Too early – it’ll have to wait. Erin’s not gonna believe this happened again.” Violet untangled her long legs, hopped out of bed and stretched. “That’s what I get for working during my vacation. Normal people have boyfriends to distract them – or husbands…or kids! At least I have you, Howard. Howard?” The golden retriever was nowhere in sight. “Deserter.”
I suggest giving the computer a common problem. What you’re describing is unclear. There is also no explanation of why this computer problem matters so it’s not a hook for the reader. The dialogue feels contrived like you’re using it to explain her circumstances rather than because it’s something she would actually say. The joke about the golden retriever (including the part where he deserts her) has been done many times.
17. Middle grade, historical
They’re having his funeral today, the man who saw everything. You heard of him? Old as dirt; lived in that cabin over on the battlefield in Chickamauga. Remember now? He was something, is what, and the stuff he talked about you ain’t never heard the likes. That’s why I’m busting a gut to get it out.
Can’t say I’m looking forward to seeing him in no coffin, though. But I reckon that’s life. And in case you’re wondering, yeah, I have to go to the funeral, him being my friend and all. Have to say some words, too, on account of he liked me so much.
I initially thought this was literary. Nothing about this feels like middle grade. Is the narrator a child? I was imagining a middle-aged man. Make sure the voice is original and not just an amalgamation of country/uneducated phrases. I would replace one or both of “you ain’t never heard the likes” and “busting a gut.” “I reckon that’s life,” “him being my friend and all,” and “on account of” feels like you’re imitating a voice you heard somewhere else and it feels over done.
The summer heat shimmered like a vapor off the asphalt at the intersection of North and Smallwood Avenues, in Baltimore. There was no escaping the sun which hung directly overhead. My mouth was dry, but the rest of me was cloaked in a layer of damp sweat. Worst of all the humidity wreaked havoc on my hair. What wasn’t matted down with perspiration was frizzed out like a science fair project gone wrong. Despite the conditions I remained focused on the task at hand.
Describing the weather and sun before anything else isn’t much of a hook. Her being most worried about her hair makes her seem vain. I don’t know if that’s your intention. I hate the phrase “like a ___ gone wrong” but that’s not personal to you. It always feels weak to me. “Remained focused on the task at hand” is wasted space, just describe what she is actually focused on.
19. Young Adult, fantasy
In utter despair, Terriana lifted her gaze upon the wooden ceiling that creaked violently with the rest of the imperial vessel. The upper deck was filled beyond capacity. The whole realm had come to witness her wedding.
“Utter despair” feels dramatic but it creates no emotional connection. I’m assuming right away this is going to be a story of forced marriage. This plot is very common, especially among aspiring writers, so it’s tough to use this as a hook. I would open with something really intriguing or endearing about Terriana to show how this is different.
20. young adult, horror
I knew I was dreaming because the girl staring at me from across the room is dead.
Jodie’s short blonde bob was caked a grotesque rust shade, as though she’d rolled around in a morbid mixture of dirt and blood. The same color was smeared across her face and down her arms and legs. The Putnam Girl’s Soccer shirt she’d been wearing the day she disappeared was torn and filthy, the same with her denim shorts.
The tense change in the first sentence is awkward. I understand why you change tense there, but it caused me to stumble. Opening with a dream is really risky. “Morbid” is not needed nor is it used correctly. “The same color was smeared” is awkward. I do like the idea though so long as it’s executed in a way that is unique.
What did you think?
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