“I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 3

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. YA Mainstream

My mother and every other woman who lives on Muriel Avenue gets paid to have sex; that’s just how it is. People think it’s shocking or scandalous or tragic or something, but really it’s just a job and a good one too. It also happens to be the family business. My mother and my grandmother and great grandmother before that, all became professional sluts on their eighteenth birthday. For the record, I will too.

Notes: I think you’re relying on the shock value of the concept, but it’s not as strong as it could be. The wording is frequently too vague. For example, “people think it’s shocking” is not as strong as drawing a clear and specific example of how reactions to her mother’s profession impact her. I would also avoid weakening phrases like “that’s just how it is” and “or something.” The voice and writing could be stronger.

Verdict: Not Hooked

2. Romance

The lights were still on. She was relieved. Lena Smith’s fingers flicked the switch on and off four more times for reassurance.

 She promised the electric company they would have their money by Friday and they would have their money. Eventually, her parents were kind enough to cover the fees “this time” (in her mother’s words) but she would either have to get her situation with the shop together or she would eventually have to close it up and move back home so she could get a “real job” again.

 Once upon a time, she did have a real job but she greatly despised it. The pay had been decent and the medical benefits a dream, but it just wasn’t what she wanted or needed. So with the money she had been saving up for whatever unidentified dream she had she put it with her bank loan and parents’ money and truly followed her dreams.

Notes: The opening moves too quickly into telling (rather than showing). The third paragraph provides information about her old job that I don’t feel like I need at this point. “Dream” is used three times in the last paragraph which reads awkwardly. Giving details about what she wants would be stronger than vaguely describing a “dream.”

Verdict: Not Hooked

3. YA Romance

Two days earlier I had been dressed in my winter clothing, breaking ice in the water troughs on our ranch in Wyoming, but now I had on a t-shirt and flip flops, dressed to go to the beach for the first time in my life. From the backseat of our pick-up, I watched as a lush valley came into view. I couldn’t believe I was finally moving to California, to this paradise nestled among the coastal foothills.

“I thought you said this place was on the ocean,” Katy, my younger sister, complained.

 I had had the same thought as her, but hadn’t said anything. Katy was the one who always spoke her mind.

“Aunt Marge said San Luis was inland a bit,” my mom answered.

“How far inland?” Katy asked.

“We’ll find out after we get Sarah’s stuff unloaded.”

Katy let out a long sigh then slumped back against the window.

 Behind me, in the bed of our pick-up sat a load of boxes representing my twenty years of existence. It wasn’t much, just clothing, books and a few personal items, but I didn’t need a whole lot because the small cottage I had rented came fully furnished. My mom followed the directions on her GPS, and not long after we passed the college, we pulled up to a large, two-story, Spanish style home. Katy’s mouth dropped. It looked like a mansion from one of the California mission towns we had learned about in grade school.

“Is this place yours?”

Notes: I think this is probably “new adult” rather than YA since the protagonist is 20. The voice is strong and it kept my attention throughout. Starting with a move is somewhat of a trope but I think the opening is interesting enough to overcome that. The balance between showing and telling feels just right, which is probably your biggest asset.

Verdict: Hooked

4. YA Mainstream

The arrow found it’s mark. It landed at the very edge of the small black painted circle in the center of the target with a satisfying thwack.

 I pulled another on to the bowstring and set up for a second shot, gently guiding my brown mare Sunny with my legs. We circled the paddock and cantered back into position for me to hit the target. I rocked slightly in the saddle, gripping with my legs to stay on Sunny’s back.

 During the summer, Saturday mornings in The Valley were calm, quiet and lazy. For most at least. I rarely took a break from training at a back breaking pace that had taken six long years to get completely used to. Summer was a time of rest and fun for most children. For Informant trainees, it usually just meant more work, more training and even less fun than we were allowed to have during the regular school year.

Notes: I like the idea but there’s a lot of focus on not particularly interesting telling. I would pull the reader into a clearer conflict. Is there something the narrator would prefer to be doing? Is he/she bitter about not having the Summer for fun or is this what the character wants?

Verdict: Not Hooked

5. Romance

Detective Dan Spencer groaned as he looked up from his desk. “Really Brenda, Thanksgiving hasn’t even come and gone yet and you’re already playing Christmas music?”

 “Sorry Scrooge.” She teased and turned the volume down. He ran his fingers through his dark, unruly hair and went back to his report, trying to shut out any more distractions. “Hey, your line is ringing.” She pointed to his phone moments later. He looked up at her with a smirk and picked up the handset.

“Yeah, got it.” He made a quick note on the copy of the report he printed, then grabbed his jacket and headed out.

“Let Tom take it, you’re almost off the clock.” His petite former partner tapped her watch. and followed him to the door. “You’re going to miss the party. It’s starting in a half hour.”

Notes: The reader doesn’t get the impression anything that’s happening in this opening is important. It feels like chit-chat before getting to the point. You’re probably starting the scene too early and/or conflict needs to be added.

Verdict: Not Hooked

6. Fantasy

Raine wasn’t an idiot. She knew what her parents were, just as she knew that the deal they were brokering wasn’t exactly a benevolent one. But if she did anything now, it would prevent her from gaining further intel that could be of use–especially if what they said was true and the princess was there.

 They had landed a few hours earlier onto a small, backwater planet called Earth. It was nice, truly, and while Raine could see its appeal, her only concern was the princess–and on finding her before her parents did. The princess was the only one who could restore order to their planet.

“You would have to give us magic–even the odds a little if what you say is true.”

Raine turned her attention back to the conversation, not liking where this was going. “We’re talking about what’s likely two aliens. We just need you to flush them out–we can handle it from there.”

Notes: It’s a bit difficult to follow what’s happening. I assumed Raine and her parents were aliens, but then they mention they are going to flush out “aliens.” It might be helpful to make it clearer whether Raine is a different kind of alien or a human. The first line of dialogue is worded awkwardly and is confusing as a result.

Verdict: Not Hooked

7. Thriller

Thursday, April 11, 2013.

She lay there moribund, her life force steadily leaking away with the blood. Her face, once beautiful, was now unrecognizable, looking like a bowl of pomegranate seeds.

 Swelling of her mid-brain caused the frequency of her little body’s spasmodic gasps for air to slow, then cease altogether. Blood no longer seeped from her wounds.

 She would never play hopscotch or tag again. She would never get to experience that strange new feeling of butterflies dancing around her belly as she readied herself for that first date. She would never know the joys of motherhood. And she would never not be dead.

Notes: The first sentence (“Her life force steadily leaking away with the blood”) feels a bit cliché. I’m not sure the comparison to pomegranate seeds is working. It took me until the second read to realize this was meant to seem gross/gruesome (mainly because I’ve only eaten pomegranate once in my life). The description of what she’s going to miss out on (first dates, motherhood) is pretty common in both fiction and nonfiction so doesn’t feel unique.

Verdict: Not Hooked

8. Mainstream

“Curse the asshat man that designed these stupid chairs!”

I’ve traveled through so many airports that all have these same banks of uncomfortable black chairs, formed into a single piece, yet separated by metal dividers posing as individual arm rests. Let’s be honest. Somewhere in aviation history some man thought this would be a great way to keep people from sleeping in airports. Comfort clearly was not a consideration, even for those merely waiting between flights.

Notes: A description of airport chairs isn’t a very intriguing place to start because the observations the narrator makes are already pretty standard and well known. I don’t think the subject matter and voice are compelling enough.

Verdict: Not Hooked

9. REMOVED

10. YA Fantasy

Her smile is coated in soft darkness, in mirrors that reflect each other over and over, never ending, in illusions crafted delicately, intricate. It’s not sadism and agony and shattered glass and screaming, but rather the starless, velvety black blanket of a midnight lacking even the glow of the moon as illumination. It’s the tarnishing of pure and shining silver.

 Her eyes are a bottomless obsidian, are the current of a small stream that pulls coursing water over pebbles. Her eyes are a subtle threat, one barely visible and still utterly corporeal. And her eyes are sharp like the edge of a bejeweled dagger.

Notes: The descriptions seem to be trying too hard without saying much of anything. The first paragraph, though it sounds fancy, is almost indecipherable. I think you’ve taken voice and style so far that it’s becoming a detriment rather than a strength.

Verdict: Not Hooked

11. Romance

I believe that if you put in the hard work, the results will come later.

 After taking all of the vital footsteps like holding onto a gig, continuing my schooling, and steering clear of things that were sure to cause difficulties I still felt like I was coming up short in many ways. At times there seemed to be no solutions, just a bunch of dead ends. Once or twice the boiling water scorched, but the perfect mixture of steam and pressure made the lid of teardrops form yet they never overflowed.

Notes: The opening lines are all too generic and don’t give the reader a sense of plot or personality. The first line is a bit clunky and the sentiment isn’t original.

Verdict: Not Hooked

12. MG Fantasy

Emily knew she should be getting ready for school, but why spend a Friday morning making lunch and doing math problems when she could be eavesdropping?

 Through the crack in the basement door, Emily saw her uncle Fabian slumped on the sofa at the bottom of the stairs. Her mother, dressed for work, paced the floor in front of him. Fabian had that just-rolled-out-of-bed look: tousled black curls, unshaven chin, rumpled plaid pajamas. He reminded Emily of her dad—at least, the photos she had seen of him.

“…and I can’t get out of it,” Mom was saying. “Someone needs to stay here with Emily.”

Emily sighed. Mom had more and more surprise business trips lately, one a month at least. Normally that meant Emily staying with her grandparents, but they were on a cruise.

“Sure, I’ll do it.” Fabian’s voice was tinged with a weird accent, similar to British. “She eats that puree stuff out of the little jars, right?”

Mom stopped pacing and put her hands on her hips. “She’s twelve.”

 “I’m joking, Evelyn.”

Emily couldn’t see her mother’s face, but she knew she wasn’t laughing. Mom hadn’t laughed in almost twelve years.

“Can I count on you?” Mom asked.

“Of course. I’m a good uncle.”

Mom snorted. Emily didn’t understand why she was so harsh. Sure, Fabian hadn’t been around much when Emily was younger. But he was here now, so why not give him a chance?

Notes: The writing is strong, and I immediately see the promise of conflict which is very powerful in capturing the reader’s interest. In order to maintain that interest, there needs to be a shift fairly quickly that allows Emily to be more active so she isn’t just listening.

Verdict: Hooked

13. Mainstream

The two girlfriends clomped into the bar, unzipped their layers of puffy clothes and unbuckled their ski boots. They piled accessories in the middle of the the log cabin-esque table of gloves, hats, helmets and goggles. The Lodge, known for their apres-ski specials, was typically full of tourists on the weekends and nearly empty otherwise. Locals rarely set foot in the place. Tacky bear and moose decor hung from the log and faux chinking walls. It was much too cliché for the locals to hang out there.

 Isabel and Nina were both exhausted from a full day on the mountain, the freezing Colorado winds had shot stinging snowflakes on what little skin was exposed during their long day of skiing. They had taken full advantage of the six inches of powder that had fallen the night before, plus the generous amounts which had continued to fall throughout the day.

Notes: There’s not enough intrigue in this opening. The details about their trip aren’t inherently interesting and the reader isn’t given any context for why this trip is important.

Verdict: Not Hooked

14. Thriller

As Dick clattered down the steel steps to the basement of the Gothic Revival Methodist Church, he had no idea how tonight would change his life. He shouldered his way through the group of smokers who had congregated in the small area just outside the doors. They brandished their cigarettes with stylised gestures possibly in an effort to offset the destructive nature of a nicotine addiction.

 In the large hall now used as a community centre, he was greeted variously by familiar faces. He helped himself to a couple of bourbon biscuits and a cup of tea from a wobbly, sodden trestle table in the corner.

 The walls were adorned with letters of the alphabet painted by children, along with a variety of posters created for the pastoral advancement of young minds. How appropriate, thought Dick with an inward smile.

 He wandered over to help Oliver, the secretary of this meeting, place the chairs in a circle.

Notes: The writing is strong and I’m almost hooked, but there isn’t quite enough promise of conflict for me. Dick seems to be milling about without clear direction. I would avoid the phrase “change his life” because it’s fairly cliché.

Verdict: Not Hooked

15. Mainstream

The first time I heard the child crying was on a Tuesday morning at the end of winter. It hadn’t rained for four months, and the dry Johannesburg air sparked with static, my every action accompanied by its own little shock. Doorknob, computer keyboard, kettle, each snapped their objection to my good-morning touch. My lips were painfully split, the skin on my arms and legs as scaly as the leathery skins of the skinks that lived in the fissures of my cracked veranda tiles. I’d woken late and managed to fumble a cup of coffee, still only half-dressed, when the phone rang with a pre-arranged call from a therapist in LA who had sent me two drawings for an opinion. His name, Dr Zane Peridone, brought to mind anti-depressants, but his voice was deep and resonant — I’d seldom heard a voice so deep. I put him on speaker and at the sound, Freddie-the-Fixer, my golden retriever-cross-mutt, rolled over onto his back and bared his tummy as if expecting the American to appear and give it a rub.

 ‘Dr Redding?’ said Peridone.

 ‘Call me Scott.’ I shivered, wishing I’d pulled a sweater over my t-shirt before answering the call.

 ‘Sure, Scott thanks for agreeing to take a look,’ he said. ‘I know you get a lot of requests.’

 ‘Happy to. I have the drawings on the screen in front of me. The young man who drew them is a refugee?’

 ‘Yes, he’s suffering from traumatic amnesia and can’t remember anything about his old life.

Notes: This kept my interest throughout. I really thought the narrator was female until he calls himself “Scott.”  I think it’s because we generally associate children and concerns over dry skin with females. The writing is smooth and clear. I’m hooked, but I would need a bit more personality later in the scene or in the following scene in order to stay hooked.

Verdict: Hooked

16. Literary

“Crispy bro … that guy, he should have been burnt big time crispy. Can’t believe he alive,” the man said, shaking his head.

“Yup. The good Lord was watching over him for sure. And that bus stop. Got in there just in time.”

 “He doing Mass every day now … don’t go no place without them rosary beads.” The men laughed. “Tell you what though, that pig price is going up … guaranteed.”

They could not know that minutes from then, and not thirty yards from where they stood, another would not be spared. It was late, and though the overtime would help pay the bills, they were tired, hungry, and wanted home.

Notes: The dialogue is a bit disorienting. It’s very tough to start with dialogue without the reader feeling lost. I’m not sure the dialogue is the best choice, especially because the reader isn’t given a clear indication of who the protagonist is.

Verdict: Not Hooked

17. YA Science Fiction

The blow of another explosion knocks me over. I press my face into the dirt and throw my hands over the back of my head. The muddy scent mixes with stinging smoke from plastic that must be burning nearby. When I peek up I have to squint. I know I should run, but I’m frozen. I don’t want to leave them behind like this. Even though I know I can’t save them anymore. It’s too late.

 My brother yanks at my arm and drags me farther away from what’s left of our home.

 I can’t make my legs move, but my eyes keep shooting around. The evening light pulses with gunfire, shadows scurry through the neighboring backyards, our rusty swing set still reels with the ghost of the last blow.

 Then a whimper. The little girl from next door? The one who found out that we were hiding a little girl just like herself?

 When my head jerks towards the sound I search the silhouette of the green chicken wire which she had pressed her pink lips against once and mumbled that she thought we were brave. That she hated that families had to pay for having children — even the poor ones.

 Wild-eyed I shout, “Lily?”

 “Shut up!” Lukas drops me and a second later covers my mouth with one hand. But his grip is so tight his fingertips dig deep into my cheeks, press in between the rows of teeth and force my jaw open. “Shut up, you hear me?”

Notes: I’m intrigued by this opening but watch out for unnecessary uses of “I know” which can be cut for a smoother read. Why does Lukas drop the narrator in the last paragraph? Was he carrying him before? Overall, you did a nice job opening with action that leaves the reader intrigued and this helps you overcome a couple issues with the writing.

Verdict: Hooked

18. YA Mainstream

We wouldn’t have been so reckless if we had known that in less than a year one of us would be dead. It’s strange. No one ever expects a simple choice, like where you’re sitting, to be the difference between life and death. It’s been three months now. I try to numb myself, but the realization fights through me and plants itself inside my heart. Reality is hard to come to terms with. My friend is dead and nothing can change that. Death happens to your grandma, not your best friend.

 My counselor tells me it takes time to grieve. She says one day I’ll make sense of it all. I find that hard to believe. How can she understand what I’m going through? But, sometimes, when she smiles sympathetically as I cry, I wonder if she does understand. Maybe she’s lost someone too.

Notes: The voice isn’t quite there yet. I like the first line, but then many of the follow-up sentences need tightening. I would cut the fourth through seventh sentence in the first paragraph for a punchier opening. The paragraph about the counselor needs a clearer point/objective – should the reader worry about her never getting over her friend or feel sorry for her for being in counseling or empathize with the counselor?

Verdict: Not Hooked

19. MG Mainstream

The last time anything really interesting in our small-town Ohio neighborhood was two years ago, in August of 1970. That was when the Boyd’s only son, Max, disappeared. Max was about 18 then. He was tall and skinny, wore a white t-shirt, black glasses and had a butch haircut. He always said hello, or waved if he rode past me on his Harley Davidson. Max Boyd kept to himself, but I liked him. He could be a loner, kind of like me. Being an only child myself, I looked up to him as the older brother I wished I had.

 Change was not a regular part of life in our neighborhood. No one moved away. The closest thing to leaving town was when a couple of older boys would go off to summer camp every year. Too bad they couldn’t ever have stayed for good. People stayed put. No one ever died. One of my friends would sometimes get a new baby brother or sister; that was no big deal.

Today, however, brought with it a sort of change that happens every June. Only fifteen more minutes until the official start of summer vacation! Whenever the second hand ticked forward, it looked like it went backwards first! The last day of school is a big deal, for obvious reasons. And it did bring with it a change in routine for awhile, for better or for worse, and this year the end of fifth grade with my favorite teacher, Mrs. Turner.

Notes: There’s a missing word in the first sentence. I like the voice, but the narrator sounds like an adult thinking back on his childhood in the first two paragraphs, but then seems much younger in the last paragraph. I would cut the exclamation points.

Verdict: Not Hooked

20. Mainstream

It would have been easy to forget where one was. With the splendid campus, the wide open spaces, one might have felt that nothing could go wrong. One often wondered about the strictness of certain rules. Why not let the kids run off to the restrooms? Why not open one’s door in response to a tender knock? Alas, the lovely jacaranda trees that dotted the campus created an inviting but deceptively safe environment. One might have felt like sauntering about, humming a sweet tune, but if you were 14 years old, doing so could invite attack. It could mean a severe beating by a rival gang, a savage sucker punch delivered to one’s lower back, or sexual assault.

Notes: The use of “one” repeatedly in the opening sentences is awkward and clunky. I don’t think it’s needed. I would prefer to simply read about the thoughts and observations of the fourteen-year-old.

Verdict: Not Hooked

What Do You Think?

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

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

Comment Question: Do you feel you learn more from seeing openings that do work or openings that don’t work?

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16 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 3

  1. Bjorn Schievers says:

    #3 Well written, but not for me. 🙂
    #5 I agree with Ellen that nothing important is happening YET, but I do like the tone you’ve set and want to see where this is going. Speaking of noirs, ever seen Dark City?
    #6 is a bit hard to follow, but I’m definitely intrigued. I’m actually very curious what’s going on. But why is this fantasy and not science fiction?
    #8 Actually… There really isn’t any story going on in your opening, but I love the comments you’re making. It sets a clear tone for the story and I already like your protagonist. I would love to read the rest of the page, I think you actually might be an exception to Ellen’s rule?
    #12 Wow, really good, definitely hooked.
    #14 This one seems to be not my kind of story, but at the same time I’d say it’s pretty good. 🙂
    #15 Obviously good, I also thought the protagonist was a woman. 🙂
    #17 Coolness. I like this approach.

  2. Bjorn Schievers says:

    Ellen Brock: Do you feel you learn more from seeing openings that do work or openings that don’t work?

    I find it more helpful to seeing examples that work and reading why you think they work. When you comment on an opening that doesn’t work I usually understand why, but it’s still kind of hard to figure out how to fix that.

    Modern books seem to want openings that are the opposite of film. In film you’re taught to show the setting and start big, then move closer to the protagonist. For books you’re sort of saying zoom in, I have to care about the protagonist before I want to know anything about the big scope.

    I find it very hard to make someone care about a stranger right off the bat.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Ha ha. I was waiting for someone to try sending in a published book. Problem is, the book is dated and so the writing feels dated for today’s market. I will remove it. Thanks for the catch!

        • J says:

          Probably just trying to make a fool of Ellen if she criticises something that’s already published. Pretty crappy way to repay her for the time and effort she spends doing these critiques.

        • Bjorn Schievers says:

          My first thought was it might be to test Ellen, and I understand J’s thought process. But it also occurred to me someone might be curious how subjective an editor’s judgment is. By that I mean I assume not every editor will always agree on what is a good opening or not. But they could have just asked, so it’s a stinky move. 🙂

          • John G. Dawson says:

            Even if Ellen gave the thumbs down to the opening of a best seller, that wouldn’t mean much. I doubt that any of Victor Hugo’s openings would get past a publisher today because he was writing for readers with a lot more patience than today’s. And some recent best sellers have been very poorly written, e.g. “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

  3. Jared Wynn says:

    I thought writing the first page was hard, but reading twenty first pages in a single sitting takes a lot more energy than I expected. Ellen, if I may ask, outside of this class do you ever read as many first pages in a day?

  4. Brett Mumford says:

    I find that I gain a lot from both types. The weaker openings show me elements to avoid, while the stronger one give me hints on why they work. The opening pages for me are almost always…instinctual. I may edit and modify many other elements of a story, but my opening is often the most accurate image I had in my mind of the story that got me started.

  5. johnsonofdaw says:

    Volume 3 Number1: I agree with Ellen

    3.2: I lost interest after “whatever unidentified”

    3.3: California “nestled”? If this is meant to demonstrate the ignorance of the narrating character it’s not blatant enough – if not, California seems rather too large to be “nestled” anywhere.

    3.4: I like “satisfying thwack”. Nice flow, except I’d rather “Sunny” was left out of the next sentence.

    3.5: Agree with Ellen.

    3.6. Fantasy not my thing.

    3.7: I thought the pomegranate simile was effective.

    3.8: “I’ve traveled through so many airports that all have these same banks of uncomfortable black chairs.” So you are the one who has made these chairs so uncomfortable? Grammar off?

    3.9: Censored?

    3.10: Fantasy skipped.

    3.11: First sentence the antithesis of romance.

    3.12: skipped.

    3.13: Agree with Ellen.

    3.14: Agree.

    3.15: Agree with Ellen. A great deal of information surreptitiously transmitted in a short space, without the usual contrived awkwardness when this is achieved.

    3.16: Agree.

    3.17: Agree

    3.18: Agree

    3.19: Agree

    3.20: You hooked me – enough to keep me reading to find out why it’s so dangerous anyway.

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