“I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 2

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. Mainstream

Claire Evans takes one last picture of her son before his class line is led away by his new teacher. Blake turns back and waves at her every few seconds making sure she is still there, watching. His tiny head popping in and out from his place in line. Suddenly the line stops and his body smashes into the girl in front of him making her turn and scowl at him. For eight, Blake is small; the top of his head lining up evenly with the chins of his classmates. I hope there’s a growth spurt in his near future. Just before his class rounds the corner he takes one last glance at Claire.

Notes: Overall, the narration needs to settle closer to either Claire or Blake. As it is, the reader isn’t sure which character is more significant. There is also no sense of why this moment is important to either character so there is a lack of an emotional charge or connection. Sure the first day of school is emotional, but what makes it different for Claire than for every other mother?

Verdict: Not Hooked

2. YA Mainstream

I’m thankful for the night, the darkness, this cave that hides us. Next to me Asha sleeps fitfully. I continue to stroke my sister’s hair, hoping to provide her at least a little bit of comfort as I consider what to do next.

 I’m exhausted and scared, but there is no time for that right now.

 Our parents are gone. I don’t know if they’re dead, just that they are gone and I need to take care of my sister now. What happened after Dad turned off the road to escape the Movement’s Patrol is hazy at best. I remember him turning off the headlights and how dark it was. I remember Asha screaming, clinging to me as we sideswiped a boulder and the car jerked to a stop.

Notes: The reader isn’t being pulled into a clear scene because the details are too sparse. I’d like more details about the cave, more personality from the protagonist, and it would probably be stronger to start while the protagonist is doing something other than sitting thinking about his/her parents.

Verdict: Not Hooked

3. MG Mainstream

‘That’s extraordinary!’ exclaimed Lizzie’s grandfather. He slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand, causing his round, metal-rimmed spectacles to jump down his nose. ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like it.’ His white, neatly trimmed moustache started to quiver with excitement.

 ‘Like what?’ asked Lizzie, who had been waiting patiently for her grandfather to finish her astrological birth chart.

 ‘Well, what we have here,’ he said, pointing at a large piece of paper spread out on the low coffee table in front of him, ‘is a picture of the solar system. It shows the positions of the sun, the moon and the planets at the very moment of your birth. These tell us something about your character – head strong and impulsive – which we know already don’t we?’ he chuckled, looking up at Lizzie with a gleam in his eye. ‘It also allows us to see into the future.’

 ‘How?’ said Lizzie, peering down at the drawing on the paper. It looked like a large wheel divided into twelve segments with a central hub and lots of coloured symbols and numbers everywhere.

Notes: I get the sense the story is starting too early and too abruptly. It feels as if you’re starting in the middle of a scene. The reader needs to get some sense of Lizzie’s personality and desires in order to relate to her.

Verdict: Not Hooked

4. Romance

I seemed to be unable to wash the dishes fast enough. I have so much that I have to do before picking up the kids I start to think why bother. There is no way I am going to do everything I have to. I keep going, and as I do, the evening errands start to creep into my head. I can’t remember which kid has to go where and it’s getting very crazy in my head. I know I have to go to a meeting at one of the kid’s schools and I’m not sure what it’s for. I am on the PTO as well as the School Committee and most times I forget the agenda until someone starts talking and I wing it from there.

 Like most moms, I think I have way too much on my plate. I have been thinking of stepping down from both groups because it has been interfering in my home life more often than not.

Notes: The reader has no reason to care about her chores. Her observations are pretty typical, which I think you’re aware of given the line “like most moms.” The key is to make her stand out, to explain what’s different about her, and a chore list isn’t going to do that.

Verdict: Not Hooked

5. YA Thriller

Poppy Middlestone was one of those girls. Everyone wanted to be like her. In the third grade, when she bought a bright red bow and wore it like a tiara the next week everyone else bought the same bow and wore it the same way.

 I bought a bow.

 She turned heads. She made parents stop and comment with things like “I wish my daughter were as well behaved and polite as that Poppy.”

When Poppy decided to chop off her hair into a cute Peter Pan pixie cut, our entire sixth-grade class did the same.

Notes: Everybody knows a girl like Poppy but I think that’s your problem here. I feel like I’ve seen similar openings in the past. The idea of the popular trend-setting girl isn’t unique and the examples given aren’t particularly compelling.

Verdict: Not Hooked

6. Fantasy

Clarice Bell pulled her lace shawl tight as she stepped out of the well-lit Savoy Theater. The November air was chill, but what truly caused her to shiver was the blackness of the London night. The Savoy had been so grandly lit with electric lights, while the streets outside offered murky darkness punctured by the pale yellow glow of gas-fueled street lamps. Cloud cover and smog smothered both moon and stars.

 Her husband, Henry, secured a two-seated brougham, pulled by a single horse. The bored looking driver lounged in his seat up front, although he managed to tip his hat at Clarice’s approach.

Notes: The descriptions feel too typical and expected. Phrases like “pulled her shawl tight,” “the blackness of night,” “darkness punctuated by streetlamps,” “bored looking driver” are phrases I’ve seen in dozens of manuscripts. I would dig deeper for a more unique voice. I’d also provide some sort of intrigue or a hint of conflict to catch the reader’s interest.

Verdict: Not Hooked

7. Romance

Joanna Rutledge Reed shifted the straw basket hanging from the crook of her elbow and took inventory. Tomatoes, fat and heavy, from the man in the corner stall, garlic bulbs – only garlic, nothing else – from the gypsy near the fountain. A toy she knew her six-year old daughter Gracie would love, and a jar of sticky fig preserves for her morning toast. The last thing on the list was fresh basil.

 The late-summer sun warmed Joanna’s shoulders as she navigated the cobblestones across the square to the herb vendor. In the corner, shielded from the sun and displayed in jars of water was the basil, deep green and bundled loosely with kitchen twine. Sunlight bounced off the water and reflected against the yellow tablecloth. The colors and the scents were so intoxicating, that Joanna slowed, just to take it all in: the market, the square, Rome.

Notes: I would need a lot more personality from the protagonist to be gripped by this opening. It seems that there is no reason to start at this point other than to introduce the setting. I would start with something more intriguing or with some hint of conflict to help maintain the reader’s interest.

Verdict: Not Hooked

8. Literary

There was only sound. I knew there was sound because I could hear nothing.

 The woman beside me reached over the armrest, her fingers looking for something to dig into. They found my skin, and it started to bleed. I felt nothing. Her other hand thumbed through her prayer beads, 108 reminders of a life that would soon be gone. She spoke to herself softly. That is what I felt—that spark of life amidst chaos that says, “Please, God, let me have a few more moments.” Smoke shot past the windows. It was thick and black. The woman next to me closed her eyes and dug in deeper, waiting for God to answer in a different way than this.

 I gulped hard and the panic crawled down my throat. I could hear the sound now. The screaming sound of metal hitting air.

 I adopted the woman’s prayer beads as my own. As she moved them through her fingers, I counted. One. A bead for my mother. I thought of the grief she would have felt upon hearing she had lost her only daughter. The guilty swell of adrenaline and the tiny voice in her head hinting that it could have been different.

 Two. I counted a bead for my father, the ghost who had brought me to this moment so I could feel my mortality one last time.

 Three. There was a boy, I don’t know why I remembered him just then. We had shared a blanket once during our senior year as we watched the stars at 2 a.m. in an empty field. Everyone had either left or was too drunk to drive home, except the two of us. I thought he might kiss me, but he never got closer than a couple feet away. He didn’t want to ruin the connection that two people feel when they don’t know enough to think better of it. Instead, we sat there, fearing the vastness of the universe and the billion random acts that had taken place to bring us together to a single place at that precise time. I wondered where he was now, if he was asleep or awake, and if he ever looked up at the sky and thought about me.

Notes: You’re very close but the voice needs work. Avoid overused phrases like “I wondered if he ever looked up at the sky and thought about me.” The format of numbering the beads is also going to get old very quickly so hopefully doesn’t last much longer than this opening. I’m assuming this is a plane crash. I’m not sure being coy about that is adding anything to the opening.

Verdict: Not Hooked

9. YA Mainstream

She daren’t open her eyes it wasn’t her bed, well it didn’t smell right and who the hell was snoring like a pig. He smelt of puke and onions. She moved away very slightly. What happened last night? It was no use she had to move away some more before she elbowed his face to shut him up. Too scared to open her eyes , God who was he?

Notes: There are major problems with run-on sentences and incorrect punctuation and this makes the excerpt far too difficult to read.

Verdict: Not Hooked

10. YA Romance

Message you have. Answer or answer not. There is no try.

 Daniel white opened his groggy eyes and jerked his head away from the blazing morning light leaking past the slats of his tightly closed window shades. He squinted at the clock on the nightstand next to his bed. “Holy hell,” he croaked out as the numbers came into focus. His girlfriend Debbie had been so cold, distant recently, and there could be only one reason she would text him at seven in the morning.

Notes: I don’t know what the first paragraph has to do with the second paragraph considering Daniel was asleep prior to the second paragraph. Opening a novel with the character waking up is a trope and the voice isn’t strong or unique enough to overcome that.

Verdict: Not Hooked

11. YA Fantasy

 “I’m a wizard?”

The boy looked so hopeful, his muddy green eyes bright behind his glasses.

“No,” Violet said. Why was it always wizards and warlocks and magicians?

 It was scary how fast his face fell. Violet stammered, scrambling to say something to reassure the kid, but he spoke before she could.

“But I can do magic,” He stomped his foot, his face screwing up into a scowl. “That means I’m a wizard!”

 “Sh!” Violet said, clamping a hand over the kid’s mouth. She looked around, making sure no one was within earshot before speaking. “Yeah, kid. You can do magic.”

A whole lot of it. The kid’s magic littered the park, a thin misting of white light. She imagined that even if she couldn’t see magic, she would be scared.

“That doesn’t mean you’re a wizard,” she continued. “You’re an elf. We’re elves.”

Notes: I think this dialogue is meant to be funny, but the reader is too disoriented to find it funny. I would use the second or third paragraph to orient the reader to what’s going on and to which of these characters is the protagonist. This will help create a connection with the characters so they aren’t talking strangers.

Verdict: Not Hooked

12. YA Fantasy

I always got stuck.

 My fingers hovered over the keys, unmoving.

 I had dreamed the night before of dust, plumes of it rising up in waves and bathing everything in sight.

I had dreamed the night before of desert. Of a single pink flower far in the distance, swaying in the breeze, just barely held onto a dying tree by a fraction of a stem, slowly dying, withering away.

Notes: Opening with a dream or a description of a dream is a trope. The images of the dream aren’t compelling or interesting enough to tempt me into reading more.

Verdict: Not Hooked

13. Fantasy

The ball of fire hovering in my open palm glowed bright. I held my breath, narrowed my eyes and concentrated, letting loose a tiny burst of my power. The flames leapt and danced in response as the colors began their transition: yellow warmed to orange, which slowly blended into an exuberant red, and finally with a flicker, came white.

 I smiled as my body hummed with energy, and admired the beauty and strength of my own magic. There’s really only one way to classify someone as skilled at manipulating their element as I am: badass.

Notes: Balls of colored fire or energy coming from a character’s palms is very common so opening with this fails to put a unique foot forward. I’m sure the last line of this excerpt is meant to be unique and endearing, but it reads as more arrogant and off putting.

Verdict: Not Hooked

14. Fantasy

Prologue: 1987

“Thoth. I can’t thank you enough for this night. It was…” Aja trailed off. She rubbed her arm nervously and Thoth, mistaking it for the chills, took off his jacket.

 Thoth wrapped the jacket around her shoulders and squeezed them. They stared into each other’s eyes not knowing what to say or how to say it. In such a short time they had already grown close. To Thoth, it felt like he had found his best friend and nothing could have made the night more perfect

Notes: The writing isn’t unique enough and the scenario lacks tension and feels cliché. Avoid overused phrases like “stared into each other’s eyes,” “not knowing what to say,” “in such a short time they had already grown close,” “nothing could have made the night more perfect.” Dig deeper for a more unique voice.

Verdict: Not Hooked

15. MG Fantasy

May 20, 1943

 The wind started slowly and rose from the west, always a dangerous sign in York. Within a few minutes it started whipping up pebbles and debris from the ground, hurling them on Michael Wilke’s legs, his arms and his face.

 If I can get below the river bank I should be low enough that the worst of this wind will blow over me, he thought.

 Michael turned his back to the wind and made a diagonal dash toward the river, wildly leaping over the rows of tiny corn plants. He stumbled and fell face first into the dirt. The puzzle box tumbled off his shoulder, and bounced twice before landing about four feet away. Michael scrambled to his feet. He dashed over, picked it up and quickly ran his eyes over the sleek wood. It looked all right. Next he checked to make sure his food stash hadn’t fallen out of the towel. It’s all fine. He heaved a sigh of relief.

 But there was no time to linger because the storm was coming up fast and furious.

 He brushed off the puzzle box and slipped the strap securely across his chest. He glanced backward and saw deep purple clouds rapidly approaching. For a minute he thought it looked like the clouds were riding on huge wild horses, galloping, galloping toward him.

 What to do? What to do? He worried as he raced toward the river. The storm looked as if it would be upon him in a few minutes.

Notes: This kept my attention throughout and the writing is strong, but I think the voice and/or Michael’s personality could be stronger to give the reader more to sink their teeth into. I would read on, but with the hope that characterization and voice come through just a bit more in the coming pages.

Verdict: Hooked

16. YA Fantasy

Molly felt the stick shove into her stomach. Her breath gushed from her, and she doubled over. The gathered crowd laughed. Molly thought she might throw up. Peace jammed the stick into Molly’s legs, and Molly sank to her knees, her hands landing in the red moist dirt in front of her. Molly couldn’t concentrate on the fight. She worried about Paul, her twin brother. Peace gave one more shove of the stick; and Molly’s face fell into the dirt, too. Molly was losing way too fast, and the match looked like it would soon be over. Molly knew that Paul would be disappointed in her – but then, he should have been there to support her. As sixteen-year-old refugees from the North, stick-fighting was Molly and Paul’s source of income. But after today’s performance, Molly thought she might need to rethink her money-making strategies. She closed her dark eyes. The dirt pit spun around her, and the crowd taunted her.

Notes: I like that you’re starting with conflict, but the play-by-play details of the first few sentences don’t give the reader a lot of room to connect with Molly. Instead of breaking up the description of the fight with an explanation of why she’s worried about Paul, I would separate these into two distinct paragraphs. I’d like to feel more emotion from Molly and to have a better understanding of what’s at stake for this specific fight so that I care more about the details.

Verdict: Not Hooked

17. Thriller

“Shit. Shit. Shit,” Mac said.

 She ran from three men as they were chasing her. Mac swore she recognized one of the men, if they caught up with her, her life would be over. She jumped over a six foot tall fence with ease, she thought, thanks dad. Mac ran her fastest and just as she thought that she lost them, a car pulled up and stopped her in her tracks.

“Holy crap.”

A tall man in army fatigues stepped out of the car. She recognized the crew cut and arrogant crooked smile.

“Toby,” Mac said.

 She prepared to fight.

“So we meet again, Mac. I missed you,” said Toby.

Notes: A protagonist with magical abilities being pursued by the military is very common so extra strong writing will be needed to make this scene feel unique. I don’t get a sense of Mac’s personality and her dialogue of generic curses isn’t helping with that. Toby’s dialogue is extremely cliché.

Verdict: Not Hooked

18. Science Fiction

The soft light trickled in through the curtains as Jane lay on the mattress. Every time she moved, puffs of dust floated into the air, the motes twinkling in the sun. Breathing in the cool, morning air Jane tried to remember where she was.

 I need to stop taking those pills.

 The old, abandoned house creaked around her. It was a lovely home. It was large, had curtains, wooden floors, and wasn’t too badly damaged. It was the only intact house left in this neighborhood and it would have made a nice permanent settlement if it wasn’t so far away from other towns.

 After what seemed like an hour, Jane sat up in the bed and realized how hungry she was.

Notes: I don’t think you’re starting at the right point in your story. The opening is too slow and nothing of interest happens. I think you chose this point to open your story so that you could introduce the setting, but it’s not enough to catch the reader’s interest. Opening with a character waking up is a trope.

Verdict: Not Hooked

19. Science Fiction

Some people strive for money, others for fame. The most disgusting ones strive for power. All I desire is going back home. Kiss mom and dad. Drink hot chocolate and tell them I love them. But when you’ve don what I’ve done, going back ain’t an option. These feelings are so strange to me. I usually don’t think about that time, when I had a family, when I was… happy. Within the last three years I’ve been beaten up quite a few times, I crashed my bike at 80 miles per hour, and a guy shot me in the leg, and yet none of that hurt as much as what I’m feeling right know.

Notes: The first two lines feel irrelevant and aren’t gripping. “When you’ve done what I’ve done” and “going back ain’t an option” both feel like phrases I’ve read many times before so the voice isn’t coming across as unique. You’re not showing the reader anything nor giving enough details about the character to make this opening compelling.

Verdict: Not Hooked

20. MG Mainstream

The door flung open. Ruthy sat up straighter. Principle Gate greeted Ms. Marshall first.

“Not sure why you’re here Ms. Marshall,” he said, irritated.

“I’m here as a character witness for Ruthy and a mediator if-“

 “Mediator? Mediator!” he turned to Ruthy, “you don’t need a mediator. What you need is a mouth piece.”

 “Mr. Gate-“

Ruthy leaned forward, intentionally speaking evenly, “Mr. Gate, I don’t need the mouth piece, your teachers do. You have suspended me for yelling at a teacher, but that teacher was bullying a student. I was simply standing up for my peer.”

Notes: The voice, characters, and content all seem off for MG. Your readers are 8-12, so words like “character witness” and “mediator” aren’t going to mean anything to most of your readers. Ruthy doesn’t speak like a child.

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 notice any trends in what did and didn’t work in the novel openings?

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9 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 2

    • Bjorn Schievers says:

      Ellen Brock: Did you notice any trends in what did and didn’t work in the novel openings?

      Some openings draw you in with a more unique voice and a way of writing that draws you into the atmosphere of the novel. Clearly this works very well, even if there are flaws Ellen points out.

      Info dumping very clearly doesn’t work, nor does a scene or style that’s been done endlessly.

    • Bjorn Schievers says:

      Yes. I have the impression that for the most part it should all be about the character and let the scene or setting seep in as lightly as possible? At the same time I’ve read an opening where the scene/setting completely dominated the first 250 words but that seems like the exception?

  1. Jennifer says:

    I really like 12. Although I agree with Ellen’s comments on not opening with a dream sequence, I think the writing is strong and the imagry fresh and evocative. I’d like to read more of this writer based on that short exceprt.

  2. devindanell says:

    The trend seemed to be the fact that some were using the do nots of an opening to a novel and the fact that some of the writers were not scoping enough. I think of it as: It’s a sea of people, as writers we need to show why we chose to write about that specific person.

  3. Bjorn Schievers says:

    #6 Don’t give up! I see what Ellen is saying. It’s nice to read, it got my attention, but it’s too generic to stand out. However, there’s something there.

    #7 There is SOMETHING here… The two things that stand out to me, that you might be able to do something with are the toy for her kid and the fact that she is in Rome. I don’t think the last line is a good opening line, but I’d use it as a starting point. Her love of Rome could be made clear by how she drinks in the colors and scents. Just the thought process of an amateur. 🙂

    #10 The first line is the text message from Debbie. But it’s very confusing to figure that out. At first I thought he had a Yoda alarm clock or something of the kind. You should really change the text to something that leaves no confusion. It should also be clear immediately WHY the text is so important. I think it’s the only thing that will make the scene less common.

    #11 I have nothing to offer on the writing, but I do wish to know more about these elves!

    #13 I personally feel this could use a twist of lemon! Not lemon, some humor. My reaction would be WOOHOOO, I created fire! I created a fucking fireball! Did you see that? What nobody? Come on… I want to see him react the way a teenager would when Arnold Schwarzenegger tells him they will get to blow up a tank together. And the humoristic attitude of Han Solo/Indiana Jones.

    #15 Nice!

    #18 I would keep the third paragraph.

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