“I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 1

ca_20150131_026Publishers, agents, and readers all make quick decisions about what they want to read. Below are my first impressions of 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 continue reading. There will be a poll at the end of the post.

When determining whether a first page is indicative of publishable writing, these are the elements typically considered:

  • Voice – Is the voice strong, unique, and consistent?
  • Clarity – Is it easy to follow what’s going on?
  • Connection – Is the character easy to connect with?
  • Conflict – Is there conflict or the promise of conflict?

“I Stopped Reading When…”

1. Romance

I let my cursor go back and forth between yes and no, wondering why there isn’t a third option. At least Facebook events let you tick the maybe box. But this RSVP form is merciless.

“I don’t know about this, Jules,” I say, clasping my mobile phone between my ear and my shoulder. “Do we really have to go to this alumni event?”

“Of course we do, Lexie. It’s been eight years since we saw these people and I’m dying to know what happened to them.”

I laugh. “You just want to know if Keith is still single, but I really doubt he is.”

“He could be divorced.”

“Maybe. But I’m not going to this event just to drool over some guy’s ass. I have better things to do than that.”

Notes: There’s no information about who these characters are or why I should care about their conversation. The character names feel awkwardly inserted into the dialogue. Starting with dialogue only works if the conversation is inherently interesting or intriguing, but this isn’t hinting towards a conflict I find compelling.

Verdict: Not Hooked

2. Fantasy

‘You’ve got it?’

Of course he had. A letter wasn’t a person: he didn’t need help to manage *things*. But Marcus’ scent was warm with protective concern, so Quintus only said, ‘In my belt pouch.’

Notes: What’s occurring would probably make sense to me if I already knew these characters, but the wording is unclear and I’m not sure what you’re trying to convey. I suppose Quintus has some difficulty managing people for some reason, but I don’t find the vagueness intriguing.

Verdict: Not Hooked

3. YA Thriller

Monday 27th July, 2016; the day my life changed forever.

My parents are away this week. They’re on holiday and I have the house to myself. They left yesterday morning and were very excited to go on their first holiday together, and truthfully, I was excited for them. Usually they’d take me, but I’m eighteen now and I guess they thought I was too old for ‘family holidays.’ I’m ok with that though, because it gives me the chance to catch up on Gotham without being interrupted every two seconds. It will be good for them to get away. They’ve both done so much for me over the past ten years, they deserve a break.

Notes: The first sentence is a cliché. The next paragraph feels a bit rambling and tells me more about the parents than the protagonist. I’d like to know something about the protagonist that’s more compelling than his/her interest in Gotham. I suggest pulling the reader into a scene rather than telling the reader details about the protagonist’s life and parents.

Verdict: Not Hooked

4. Fantasy

Humans constantly surprised me with their ability to survive.

Despite the magical shit storm that was about to happen, the humans remained oblivious. The paranormal world had come out of the closet years ago and humans thought they knew everything there was to know. They were wrong. Even with this intense magical pressure they couldn’t sense a thing.

Notes: You’re starting with information rather than a compelling or emotional scene. The details are too vague to hook the reader.

Verdict: Not Hooked

5. Mystery

When Mickey Sanders strolled onto the veranda at Jimmy’s Bistro and Bar, the place was already humming with a festive vibe just a few minutes past eight. She glanced at the thin silver-and-gold TAG Heuer on her wrist and tried to figure the odds on whether she’d be out of there by 8:30.

It was a Tuesday night in late May, temperature in the low 70s, the sun settling on the horizon over the Gulf of Mexico and a gentle ocean breeze blowing in across the Porter Island marina just a 5-iron due south of here. Definitely a similar feel, Mickey thought, to all those sponsors’ cocktail parties she’d attended while playing the LPGA tour, but the people mix was all wrong. There simply weren’t enough men, she thought, searching for a familiar face and not immediately finding one.

Notes: There are too many uninteresting details: the exact time, the exact temperature, the type and brand of her watch. Most readers want to get to the point a lot faster than this. A couple of details to set the scene is all you need.

Verdict: Not Hooked

6. Mainstream

This is what I get for trusting someone else’s judgment.

I never wanted to do this, never thought I’d be back in this position, but after the news I got yesterday, I had to give it a try. So, I tried. I can hardly breathe, but I managed to tug on the little black dress I wore at prom. I nearly broke my ankle walking into the restaurant in these peep-toe pumps I haven’t worn since my 21st birthday. I rake my nails across the back of my neck and regret using that Victoria’s Secret body spray. I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to it.

Notes: The main problem is the vagueness of the first two sentences. They tell the reader almost nothing except that you’re withholding information. The trouble is that the reader isn’t given a strong enough reason to be intrigued by why she’s dressing this way. I think you’re close to an opening with a hook, but you’re not quite there.

Verdict: Not Hooked

7. Fantasy

Timothy, Earl of Clavia, last and only living son of the Duke of Vindemia, youngest councillor to his Majesty King Thomas of Mendacia, and third in line for the throne, poured himself another cup of tea. ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘you’re keeping too much to yourself.’

‘Whatever you like,’ his wife murmured. She set down her cup and walked to the open windows. Beyond the fountain and the rose-garden, the lawns of their summer-house stretched between two lines of birches. She twisted a handkerchief through her fingers.

‘Narcissa, please. Why don’t we invite some friends up from the city? Peter and Agatha, now; their estate isn’t far from here. Yes, Agatha can be a bit stuffy, but Peter’s a capital fellow, and both know how to return a favour. And we’d have — ’

‘Oh, stop. Please stop!’ Narcissa fanned herself, then shivered. ‘I don’t want to see anyone. I can’t bear to be away from home.’

Notes: The first sentence is so long that it almost seems as if it’s meant to be comedic, but I don’t think that’s your intention. The dialogue feels stilted, which probably has to do with this being fantasy, but prevents me from connecting to the characters.

Verdict: Not Hooked

8. Fantasy

Last night and six lifetimes ago, I picked what I thought would be a nice, quiet spot to bed down for a bit of beauty rest. It was by a dumpster in an alleyway, and none too shabby as alleys go; relatively rat-free and with just a soupçon of urine, enough to know the cops don’t come around often but not so much as to put me off my breakfast. And did I mention the dumpster? It belongs to a Michelin-rated restaurant with a signature saffron marsala sauce, so that plate of pasta no one ever seems to finish, I was going to finish a few of those when I woke up.

But then I woke up craving a muffin. Which might be because I can no longer tell the difference between today, yesterday and late afternoon last Tuesday, or maybe it’s just because dumpster pasta isn’t exactly breakfast cuisine. Whatever the case may be, the craving was real. I swear I wasn’t just using that as an excuse to get a glimpse of her.

BAM! The dumpster lid goes down like a gunshot and my eyes slam open. I look up to see the old familiar face of another loser like me. I’ve been waking up to his ugly mug for almost a week now, but he doesn’t know that.

“Sorry man,” he says. “Just grabbing a bite to eat. You want something?” he asks as he lifts the lid again.

“I told you, I don’t have time to

Notes: The opening isn’t quite perfect yet, but the voice is consistent and it made me smile. The transition between past and present tense is confusing. He says he “woke up craving a muffin” and then he seems to wake up again in the next paragraph. Is this a different day? It needs to be clearer. You have a strong sense of your character and a fun voice and that’s how you’re going to win people over.

Verdict: Hooked

9. YA Fantasy

Rowena slept fitfully most of the night but managed to fall into a coma just before dawn. And to her great fear, the nightmare came: worms crawling up and down her arms, their slimy bodies undulating as their small, tacky feet gripped her skin, wending their way slowly to her face and up her nose, in her ears, into and down her throat.

Notes: Opening with a dream is a trope, especially in YA fantasy. I’d estimate at least 30% of unpublished YA fantasy and middle grade have a prophetic/warning dream within the first three scenes. I wouldn’t use “fall into a coma” when you really just mean she’s sleeping.

Verdict: Not Hooked

10. Literary

Carol tightened her grip on the steering wheel, trying to control the trembling of her hands. This couldn’t be happening. Good God, what was she going to do? And the kids—what would happen to them if…

Stop it, she told herself. You’re getting way ahead of yourself. Chances are, it’s nothing.

She had thought the lingering of the doctor’s hand on her breast was an inappropriate response to her well-endowed figure. Men had always enjoyed touching her. But it was worse than that.

It was a lump. In her breast. Her breasts were one of the only things she could rely on to get by. Not that she needed to use them for that anymore. She had a good job, and a good man. Chuck was the first man to appreciate more than just her body. They were talking about moving in together, but if she only had one boob, would he stick around? And if he didn’t…

Notes: Standing out with a cancer story is pretty challenging because they are very common in both fiction and nonfiction. Carol comes across as a bit too conceited to me because she thinks the doctor is interested in her for touching her breasts during a breast exam. This wouldn’t necessarily bother me if I knew more about Carol and cared about her already, but it’s a bit off putting in an opening scene.

Verdict: Not Hooked

11. YA Mainstream

Alora Prescain balanced barefoot on the stump of a recently felled oak tree secretly wondering if the tree had a soul. Animals have souls, of this she was certain.

How often did she hear an animal soul cry out?

The Prescain family made a business of taking an animal cry and reassigning it to the strings of a musical instrument, turning a cry into a song. Indeed, Prescain Strings were the finest traditional gut strings—the only gut strings—made in the foothills of sunny, Las Pumas Hills, California.

Notes: The subject matter is interesting and unique, but the first few sentences aren’t working for me. Specifically, the transition/connection between the first and second sentence feels a bit forced. I also think mentioning souls is going to give the impression that this is a fantasy.

Verdict: Not Hooked

12. Literary

James entered the house, catching the door behind him and closing it softly. Beth’s car was in the garage, so he knew she was there, but the lights in the house were off and all was quiet. She must be 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.

“Beth, sweetheart, it’s going to be all right.” He kissed the top of her head, then went around to sit beside her.

“I know.” She dropped the afghan. “I just always have this moment of panic when I wake up. What if…”

She didn’t complete the thought. After two miscarriages and a 29-week stillbirth, the thought of losing this baby was a fear they both lived with daily.

Notes: I’m not connecting to either character. The focus on James in the beginning is awkward because he isn’t doing anything to move towards a goal or to demonstrate a problem. He has no purpose prior to seeing his wife. I think you’re probably starting the story at the wrong point.

Verdict: Not Hooked

13. YA Mainstream

I had not long turned 18 and was being chased down the street by a man with an axe. It had been a calm, quiet evening before I ran screaming out of a rambling old terrace house and into the night. From the street you could see into a large sunroom at the front of the house where a woman with wild hair, wrapped in a bathrobe was shouting at me. I wore ponytails and a short school uniform. Her yelling broke the stillness of the evening. “You get back here Sunita Cameron you little bitch!” the woman roared, “Don’t think you can get away from us! We’re your parents and no one else is gonna put up with you.”

Notes: The wording of “not long turned 18” is awkward. The flow in this paragraph is off. Try to avoid separating sentences about the same topic. For example, suddenly bringing up her ponytails and uniform breaks up the description of the woman.

Verdict: Not Hooked

14. YA Mainstream

It was the third fire this week! A pilfer, the way it stole the lives and homes of so many, incrementally destroying my whole neighborhood. Piteous as it may be, I cannot persist with such self-pity. Not when every other person in the world as-we know it-goes through exactly the same thing every day.

During childhood, all of the neighborhood’s youth fretted needlessly over the fires that occurred. We slept unsettled, sweaty, and heat sick. We learned, as we got older, that it did nothing to worry. Our bodies adjusted to the climate. If there was a fire; you get up, grab your things, and walk out.

Notes: The use of “piteous” and “pity” in the same sentence is awkward. I can’t tell if you’re referring to literal fire or just general heat or both. The narration seems to switch between heat and literal fire at almost every sentence. I’m having to work harder than I would like to understand this. I would be clearer about the source of the fire to eliminate confusion.

Verdict: Not Hooked

15. MG Science Fiction

The mega delicious smells of pepperoni and cheese hit Josh’s nose as soon as he entered Pizza Mannya. But he wasn’t there to eat pizza, at least not yet. He was there to shoot down some aliens. The pizza would have to wait.

“So, you still think you can beat my score?” Josh asked Rory as they made their way to the arcade room.

“Dude, your days of topping me at Space Invaders are over. Today, I’m gonna kick your loser butt and beat Manny’s all-time record to claim the prize.”

Josh scoffed. “You’d have to grow an extra pair of arms and hands, not to mention a brain to beat my score, never mind Manny’s. He’s like the world champion or something.”

“We’ll see about that,” said Rory,  putting on a sudden burst of speed.

Notes: Even for middle grade, the stakes feel pretty low. I’d need a lot more characterization to be sold on this opening. I spent way too long trying to understand how to pronounce Pizza Mannya before realizing it wasn’t “man-ya” but “mania.” The kids’ conversation feels like unnecessary chatter that leaves the reader itching to get to the point.

Verdict: Not Hooked

16. Fantasy

The evening sun brushed the tops of the trees as Carrick tethered the last of the pit ponies to the line. He led them back into the prison mines, and the animals trotted obediently towards their stables. Neither the ponies nor Carrick paid attention to the guards on the door, until the butt-end of a crossbow was pushed against the large Earther’s shoulder.

“Get inside, prisoner,” barked its owner. “No dawdling.”

Carrick looked the guard over, and turned away without a word. The youngsters always tried to throw their weight around a bit at first. Twenty years ago he might have responded to it. Thirty years ago he would have made the cocky stripling eat dirt. Now he was old enough to let it go. He was more interested in settling the animals, and keeping his work privileges, than in playing games with Avlem whelps.

The rocks under the guards’ feet shivered as Carrick walked past, and the young guard stumbled, dropping her crossbow. The old Earther hid a small smile behind his beard. Almost old enough, anyway, he thought.

* * *

Carrick took his time over feeding and grooming the pit ponies. Once the doors were re-locked, the guards largely ignored him, and Carrick was in no hurry to return to his sector. When it was just him and the animals, Carrick could forget about the Outsiders and go back to when this was an Earther stronghold. He told the ponies the old legends as he brushed them down, and for an hour or so, the past fifty years melted away like a bad dream.

Notes: The primary reason I would keep reading this is because of the voice: it’s smooth, it has character, and it’s clear. I do think the last line of the first section “Almost old enough, anyway, he thought.” is a tad confusing if you don’t read the passage quickly. This is a good example of how a non-flashy opening can hook the reader with competent writing and by showing characterization.

Verdict: Hooked

17. YA Fantasy

Mr Malcolm was running late so he picked up the pace. It was early morning, and like every day he dreaded the ominous repetition, the monotonous small talk, and the empty smiles geared solely to appease the hungry appetites of those exact same people his way through his office. He must be depressed he thought to himself.

He had to run, they were waiting for him and he was late, and deep down he felt that the day wasn’t going to be a good day. Some call it bad luck, he called it routine. He always had this feeling that warned him beforehand of his bad fate, and so he was always around when something bad happened.

Notes: I’m assuming you’re opening with an adult character which probably isn’t a good choice for YA. There’s a missing word in the second sentence: “same people his way through his office.” The second paragraph is confusing. What is the connection between “bad luck” and “routine”? Do you mean he has bad luck so often it’s his routine? If he has a feeling that something bad is going to happen, why would he always be around when it happened? Wouldn’t he avoid the bad luck? I’m too confused to be hooked.

Verdict: Not Hooked

18. Science Fiction

Life is warm. Life is heat. First was the darkness, then came Life. Heat brought the Light. The darkness ran from the light on silent swift limbs. After a time, the heat and light brought the signs of Life. First were the plants and water who would use the light and heat to grow. Then Life brought the animals who would feed on the plants and water. When it was ready, Life brought the Sel who would feed on the plants and the water and the animals. The Sel were Life made manifest.

– first quotation from The Way of Life.

Liuani knew that the Ostogot…note to self, they are the only pre-light avians yet discovered, had only developed the industrialized presses 100 cycles ago, but occasionally she wished they used a better medium to write on originally than pressed plant skin. Some of the documents that had been brought back from their planet were almost impossible to read, even with the level of computer enhancement that she used. She was fairly sure that she was eventually going to find confirmation that this was proof of the third revision of the religious texts of the largest religion practiced by the Ostogot. This revision was responsible, she was sure, for the change in emphasis in their concepts of creation and evolution of their people.

Notes: The first paragraph is a bit strange. I kept wondering what I was reading because it seemed repetitive and clunky. The next paragraph doesn’t give me any characterization to latch onto and focuses only on world building.

Verdict: Not Hooked

19. YA Fantasy

At dusk, I often listened to the old dockworkers talking among themselves. They told tales of how the port of Tal’Sol was the busiest in all of kingdoms of Idradal, and had been a remarkable sight. A sea of masts and sails as far as the eyes could see. Ships came from every major city to sell or transport their goods. Those days had long since passed judging by the number of ships which now visited the port. I watched and it seemed rubbish and debris visited the port ad it drifted on the surface of the water. In the distant, waves continuously crashed against the harbor wall like a might hammer.

On the breeze, the pungent stench of seaweed and freshly caught fish tickled the back of my nose. Overhead, seabirds screeched, eager to steal a free lunch from a distracted merchant. I watched as greedy merchants inspected their goods unloaded from the tall ships. With a shrewd glances and a handshake, payments exchanged hands, and customs turned a blind eye to whatever might be inside the crates.

I closed my eyes and imagined being on the forward deck of one of those vessels. The roar of the wind and the creaking of the timbers as the bow ploughed through the water. The oceans spray cold against my face. Licking my lips, I could almost taste the sea salt.

Shaking the thoughts aside, this was not the time for silly romantic notions.

Notes: There are too many typos for an agent or editor to take this seriously. Overall, I like the imagery, but I’d prefer to be pulled in a little closer to the desires or emotions of the protagonist to create a better connection to what’s going on. The writing is very close to being strong enough, but the typos leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Verdict: Not Hooked

20. Fantasy

A procession of robed priests marched through the square. Their droned hymns echoed between the buildings of stone and moss surrounding the courtyard. They were joined by the voices of the men and women of Linnesse who crowded the square.

“Take heed!” The eldest cleric shouted. “Send your prayers to the Emperator who sits atop the Spire; the throne which pierces the heavens.”

The air would soon be thick with the aromatic smoke from swinging censers.

“Without the light of the Emperator,” He continued, “The era of peace will soon give way to shadow. Pray then to the Emperator who is God, so that he-” The elder was jostled by his clergymen who in turn were shoved by a red-vested member of the city watch.

Detective Constable Joseph Neumarque opted for duty over devotion as he shouldered his way through the religious cavalcade.

“Pickpocket!” He shouted, ignoring the calamity left in his wake.

Cast my bones. He thought, He’s heading for the Roughs.

Joseph couldn’t afford to lose the perpetrator in the slums if he was going to fulfill the month’s quota. The evening bells tolled as if on queue.

The constable darted after the little thief, unnoticed by others.

Notes: I would much prefer you open with Joseph. The first four paragraphs don’t hook the reader and feel as if they’re misdirecting the reader’s attention. I had to reorient to try to understand what Joseph is doing and what it has to do (nothing) with the priests. The writing is strong, I just think you’re starting by focusing the reader’s attention in the wrong direction.

 Verdict: Not Hooked

What Do You Think?

More submissions will be posted tomorrow and every day this week so make sure to check back.

If you did not submit already, you can still submit here.

Comment Question: Did you learn anything you can apply to your own manuscript from reading these opening pages?

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