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 twenty 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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“I Stopped Reading When…”
Kahlan winced and groaned as she slowly came around and then gasped for air.
She needed a moment, struggling against the ponderosity that lay on her lids like lead. Against the biting pain, its echos still raging under her skin; greedily tearing at her consciousness like a starving wolf tore at a bloody piece of flesh…
In the first sentence, it’s not initially clear that by “came around” you mean that she’s becoming conscious. I imagined her as upright and walking. I’m not sure how “ponderosity” can “lay on her lids” and that definitely pulled me out of the story. It’s not clear what “its” is referring to in the last sentence.
“Dad, you have me worried, now. Please speak plainly.”
God’s command to Stephen to leave his home and go out into the world was clear. His Father, though, was trying to scare him out of it, and Stephen was starting to wonder whether it was working.
The opening dialogue feels stilted and unnatural. I wonder if opening with Stephen getting the call from God might be more interesting. As it is, I don’t know if Stephen really was commanded by God, if this is a retelling of a religious text, or if Stephen is crazy.
“I’d just better get a big, fat raise after this.” Olivia James grumbles under her breath, pushing the studio door open angrily.
It is early November in Los Angeles and she can feel a bit of a chill in the air already. She has just shot a scene that so didn’t go down as it was in the script and she is just so pissed off at the director and at her co-star for not giving her a heads up about it. It is not in her contract and Paul knows how she feels about love scenes that are a little too raunchy. But stupid Ethan Watson, her co-star and director’s son, just had to insist that they could pull it off and that “of course it won’t be too much, dad. We trust you”.
“Angrily” is an unnecessary adverb in the first sentence. Use a stronger verb instead (shove, kick, etc.). The second sentence of the second paragraph is awkward, especially “a scene that so didn’t go down as it was in the script.” “So” is repeated later in the sentence (“so pissed off”) and this is clunky. Jumping immediately into back story makes me wonder why you didn’t start the novel just a little bit earlier. I would expect the sex scene to be immediately connected to her goal or motivation to indicate to the reader why it’s relevant.
4. Young Adult, mystery
His eyes met mine in surprise, while he dropped the arm, that he just ripped off my mother’s body, on the floor. I had only a spark of a second to decide what to do: try to save my mom, with the risk of being eaten alive by the Big Bad Wolf, or run for my life.
Given the pool of blood on the floor and the lifeless look on my mother’s face, I chose the latter.
So here I am, running out of breath as my legs keep on moving like I’m sailing down a cliff.
The commas in the first sentence aren’t needed and make the prose very awkward to read. “That” and “on the floor” are also not needed. “His eyes met mine in surprise” is a weak description that isn’t displaying your voice. “So here I am” is way too casual for the situation and is an awkward transition.
Playing god isn’t for sissies.
Gary had done despicable things, sacrificed his soul, in his attempt to find a cure for the moral evil plaguing humanity. This was his penance for killing his wife and he willingly paid the price.
This reads like a query letter rather than a first page. “Playing god,” “plaguing humanity,” “sacrificed his soul” and “paid the price” are all phrases that are either cliche or extremely common/familiar. This means they fail to create an emotional reaction in the reader.
6. Young adult, fantasy
Fourteen squares on a contoured metal floor. Kaura stood on one of them, near the edge of the group. Fourteen different colors, one for each square. She had chosen a deep blue one – like the ocean. It reminded her of the home she had said goodbye to.
And fourteen victims – seven young men and seven young women. Kaura was one of them.
Opening with a sentence fragment is a little awkward. The first and third sentences are similar enough to feel like there is some redundancy. Comparing blue to the ocean is cliche. “the home she said goodbye to” also feels a touch cliche. I think this is a plot I might like, but the writing needs work.
7. middle grade, Fantasy
No one knows exactly what kind of creatures inhabit the deep darkness of the River Mouth Woods. Early in the morning, before the sun comes up, a deep fog rises from the surface of the Yellow River as it enters the mouth of the Forest. It is called the Breath of the Monsters, and ancient tree-dwarves say they can smell the venomous fangs and sharp teeth of serpents and trolls in it. Before finding seclusion at the County of Thombling, tree-dwarves had been easy prey to countless predators that inhabit the Land of Eaohl. Orcs and wolves at the Dark Northern Lands. Dragons and eagles near the Foggy Crags on the West. Nameless fears crawling under the ground in the Southern Deserts. And, of course Wizards, the most evil and nasty creatures to walk the land. In order to escape from a sharp claw flying down on you or to dodge a wooden club zipping towards your head, tree-dwarves developed a deep awareness of their surroundings and a vital need to constantly know everyone’s whereabouts.
I suggest opening with a child protagonist or a short catchy introduction to the world (I’m not seeing a hook here). When using traditional/common fantasy creatures, it’s really tough to stand out, so this didn’t really capture my interest.
To: Mailing List
Date: December 28th
From: Sharon, John and Rex – The Crazy Canucks
Subject: Somewhere in the Madre del Sur Mountain range in Mexico
I’m gnawing at my fingernails, a sign I should distract myself, save what’s left of my cuticles, and write.
Hopefully, you’ll receive this snippet in the weekly trip-around-Mexico briefing, and we’re basking in the sun with a piña colada in hand. Or, you’ve been contacted by a Mexican Official (just know I haven’t sold your contact information), we’ve plunged. . .
I write to distance myself from the situation. I can’t call anybody being there’s no phone service in the boonies. Why am I not screaming and yelling? Because we’ve just spent six grueling hours crossing over a mountain range, and I’m numb. Besides, I dare not add more stress to my typical calm English husband. LoL.
Let me explain our situation. We’re staring at a makeshift bridge spanning a twenty-five foot drop.
Opening with an email is an interesting idea, however the specific contents aren’t grabbing my attention. If you call a novel a comedy, readers will expect a good laugh within the first paragraph. This seems like mainstream fiction. The first sentence of the second paragraph of the email reads awkwardly because “and” connects two concepts that don’t seem related. I don’t know what you mean by “we’ve plunged.” I’m not sure if the last paragraph is still a part of the email. “Let me explain our situation” reads a bit contrived to me.
Heartbeat in my ears muffles the yelling. My muscles tense and I can feel the blood coursing through my veins. I shake out my fingers, ready. Spotlight hot on my skin. Sweat rolls from my temples to my jaw line. “And on bass, Dan Idlewyld!” All eyes on me. It’s cool, I got this. I mean, c’mon, I live for this kind of shit. Dripping sweat all over my axe. Converting crowds into fans with my amazing precision to the craft. Rocker on stage? I don’t know what else says narcisslut more than that. Yeah, I think I can handle this.
“Hel-looo. I’ve been waiting for a while now.”
Squeeze my eyes tight and open them.
My axe is gone.
The crowd is now a horde of customers.
Second sentence feels cliche. I assume an axe is a type of bass guitar, but I wouldn’t assume readers will know that. Opening with a character fantasizing is just as bad as opening with a dream. It’s misleading. It’s also common. I’m confused about why he is fantasizing about being horribly sweaty and nervous on stage. Why wouldn’t he imagine himself as cool and in control?
10. young adult
This is not the right place.
I glance restlessly around Mario’s Pizza, the dingy little pizza joint I’d been directed to.
Please, this can’t possibly be the right place . . .
I fish the crumpled piece of paper from my coat pocket and smooth it. It’s damp from the cold October rain falling to the ground in sheets outside. I review the address scribbled on it for probably the tenth time in the past forty minutes.
109 Regent Street, Tuesday Oct. 31st, 3:30pm.
The old plaque drilled to the brick above the entrance wouldn’t lie; this is 109 Regent Street, apparently.
So where is the story? And where is my partner?
I can’t say I hadn’t been warned. Professor Michael Runtz was infamous amongst Rusk University journalism students for the somewhat… unique nature of his class assignments.
If the character is in college, this is not young adult. The second paragraph reads as if he was directed specifically to a pizza joint, so it makes it confusing that he’s surprised that it’s “the place.” I’m not a fan of the phrase “wouldn’t lie.” It feels weak to me. I think this could be an interesting premise, but I think this is a case where you’re trying to create too much mystery when being straightforward about the assignment would actually be better.
“Honestly, I would rather repair it myself than wait for the landlord to hire someone,
but since I am not an electrician, I don’t have a lot of options.” I wanted my new coworker to understand that I had the ability, that cleverness and handiness characterized my talents and skills and that I belonged in my new environment.
I don’t understand this opening. She says she can’t repair it herself, but then says she wanted her coworker to understand that she has the ability. But she doesn’t have the ability. So I don’t know what you’re trying to convey. Using “ability,” “cleverness,” “handiness,” “talents,” and “skills” all in the same sentence feels redundant.
12. Young adult
“Set the power to seventy-five percent and perform a power-on stall,” instructed Thomas, the flight examiner.
Chris practiced these a few times with his instructor at Blue Sky Flight School, but he wasn’t expecting to have to do it for the private flight exam. He wasn’t even sure it was a required maneuver in a private checkride.
I strongly recommend that the first named character be the main character. “Blue Sky Flight School” feels tacked onto the second paragraph and pulled me out of the story. I’m not sure what makes this young adult unless this is scifi and Chris can fly while still in high school. I don’t see a hook, a conflict, or a strong personality to connect to.
13. young adult, literary
Fake people with fake smiles living superficial lives with superficial pleasures. Although many people supposedly despise humans with these disturbing desires, they themselves become as vain and self-absorbed as the ones they mocked. I believe the way to slow this cycle is to remove oneself from the world.
Sometimes one is born distanced from their earthly surroundings, as if they are always hovering twenty feet off the ground or buried eleven feet deep. Lucky for you, an example of one of these people is at your reach. I am one of the secret many that have little attaching themselves to the surface. The name given to me is Jane Grey Cellar. I am 17 years old but feel as though I have been living for ages.
The first line doesn’t do anything for me. The second line is unclear and awkward. What are “these disturbing desires”? I assume in the second paragraph (since you marked this as literary and not scifi) that you’re describing derealization/depersonalization (dissociative disorders). Saying it’s “lucky” that the reader gets to be in the presence of the narrator sounds pretentious and off putting to me. The voice almost works, but the character is teetering between sounding mentally ill (dissociative) and arrogant/pretentious/angst-ridden.
14. middle grade, historical
A daughter must not hate her father, even when he rips the family apart. Trine leaned her forehead against the guardrail and breathed in, hoping to capture a wisp of fresh sea wind. Instead she was caught within a swirl of body odors and stale cigar smoke. The steamship inched its way from the docks. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her head throbbed in pain. And the touching. Never had she felt so many bodies pushing, poking, pressing against her.
The first sentence feels like a statement of theme, but it’s not needed and reads awkwardly. If this is Historical, I’m questioning the likelihood of her being named Trine. It’s not clear if she’s on the docks or on the ship. I’d like either a better sense of how she feels or a really unique narrative voice.
“Take a number and get in the line with all the other nitwits sliding down the shitter hole. Trust me. This is how it all begins… fine, lady. It’s your orgy. I’m just telling it like it is. All right, all right. Here’s what you do. Drive to Reno, not Vegas. Bring ones, no bills bigger. Lots of one’s– five G’s– and comfortable shoes. Boots if you got them. Ask for Mandii. That’s with two i’s. Her mother was a pothead. Thought it was cute. She’s dead now.”
“No, not Mandii, the mother. She’s been known to do her share of coke.”
“No. Mandii. Mother’s dead. I already told you that. Maybe you should be writing this down,” he laughed, showing off his shiny gold-tooth grin. “Anyway, ask for The Lizard. Tell’m Giorgio sent you.”
Opening with dialogue seems to be a popular choice, but it can be problematic in that it lacks context. I don’t understand most of the first paragraph. It sounds to me that the the first person to speak is probably an incidental side character so showing off his voice (rather than a strong narrative voice) doesn’t make the reader feel inherently captured by the work.
16. young adult, scifi
For most of my life I had been the human equivalent of beige. Then one day I made a man’s head explode.
I was sitting in traffic opposite a council estate one sweltering Tuesday evening. A pool of sweat had formed between my back and the seat. I was dying of thirst while bursting for a piss, and not appreciating the irony. For the third time the lights went from green, to orange, to red without letting a single car through. I had been staring at him the whole time.
While the concept could be intriguing, the first two lines don’t demonstrate a strong voice or clear tone. They could be interpreted as either serious or comedic. Someone self-describing as “beige” doesn’t sound too fun to read about. The character/voice doesn’t sound like young adult. “Council estate” and “Tuesday evening” are phrases that make me imagine a woman at least in her late twenties. Why are the lights changing without letting cars go through? This could be clarified a bit.
The iron tang of blood coated Marnej’s mouth, but he kept running. He glanced back over his shoulder. The trees blurred, but at least there were no arrows flying toward him. He turned back and stumbled as his foot caught on a root. He lurched forward, but kept his feet moving and his thoughts focused on the Song of All. From the corner of his eye he could see Dárja. Her loose, dark braid bounced and her face was flushed with her effort. They’d been running for what seemed like the whole day. But when he sighted the sun dipping down by his left shoulder, he knew it had been hardly enough time to put a safe distance between themselves and the soldiers that dogged them.
The scene being described should be tense, but the writing doesn’t reflect that. Here are a few things that reduce tension: describing what’s not happening (third sentence – the arrows aren’t flying towards him), inverting the order of events (he “stumbled as his foot caught” rather than “his foot caught and he stumbled”), delving into back story (“they’d been running for what seemed…”).
Denis Chernyk banged his hand against the steering wheel. “Come on! Move or get out of the way!”
No one heard his shout. He and his van sat in the middle of downtown Bangalore afternoon traffic. The broiling south India sun overhead, he wiped sweat from his forehead and glanced down at his smart phone on the seat next to him. When are they going to call? They said right after lunch, and now it’s almost four. And they haven’t answered whenever I’ve called back. I can’t miss out on…
“Finally.” He pressed the gas pedal and moved ahead a few feet before a cow strolled in front of him. Ah, life is never boring here. Stopping the van, he rubbed his hand across his face and looked at his phone one more time. With all the horns honking and music playing, maybe I didn’t hear the ring. But no missed call.
“Move or get out of the way” seems redundant. Aren’t those the same thing? As has been mentioned before, opening with someone traveling (on foot or in car) is very common. Would Denis say “life is never boring here” if he is used to India? Would seeing the cow really be noteworthy? Since I don’t know what the call is about, I don’t feel worried about whether he gets the call or not.
Tlunen looked up from his hands and knees, the blood from his split lip smacking harshly like rust in his mouth. All around, hundreds cheered for it.
He shouldn’t be here. He was a hunter, not a warrior. The heavy armor, the stench of leather and metal and sweat—these did not belong to him. The sword flung yards away had not been used in years, before the arena. He did not belong here.
“Smacking harshly” caused me to stumble in the first sentence. Since I don’t know what rust tastes like, it’s not a very helpful simile. What is the “it” hundreds are cheering for? The last sentence feels repetitive, both because it’s similar to the first sentence in the last paragraph and because it repeats “belong,” which was used earlier in the paragraph.
“How long are you going to let her dictate your life Solar?”
I sighed. “Aqua, not now, not again.”
She was sitting with me in the back of the car, feet propped up against the headrest, black air scrunched up behind her.
“I’m sorry Sol, but this is the first time we’ve seen each other in six years, and your still in school, just because that what your mother wants.”
If this isn’t scifi or fantasy, why are their names Sol and Aqua? Those names were a distraction for me. The last sentence is “As you know, Bob” dialogue, which means it is information both of the characters already know and would not say.
What did you think?
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