“I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 5

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. Fantasy

Aryas’ face looked like he had already lost the war, big circles under his eyes were accompanied by mud as he and several of his men were hiding behind a small ruined wall. The rain was dripping from his helmet, the soaked red plume from front to back only hinting at its normal majesty.

“Don’t worry commander, today we destroy these pointy eared bastards.” A familiar hand on his shoulder accompanied the equally familiar voice.

 Aryas looked up at his old friend Cugarta, now his second. He was well aware that he owed his command to the deaths of those who outranked him and thus relied heavily on the officers still with him. Three years was an eternity to besiege an enemy city.

Notes: The writing is close, but needs a bit of work. Some of the word choices are awkward or unnatural. For example “were accompanied by mud” and “accompanied the equally familiar voice.” This is both word repetition and it’s not as evocative as it could be. “Thus relied heavily” also reads awkwardly formal.

Verdict: Not Hooked

2. Mainstream

It was raining. That’s what I most remember of that day. I guess there was a mass. I guess the priest called out the rosary, prayers were chanted, automatic responses extracted from the huddling masses cowering underneath umbrellas, a field of somber black and occasional riot of color.

 To me it was a blur, chanting of ritual prayers a buzzing in my head. A radio station hard to tune in.

Notes: I like the concept but there are a few awkward spots in the writing. “The huddling masses” pulled me out of the story a bit because the wording doesn’t seem natural. “And occasional riot of color” reads awkwardly and should probably be “with the occasional riot of color.” “A radio station hard to tune in” reads awkwardly and should probably be “hard to tune into.”

Verdict: Not Hooked

3. YA Mystery

I imagined other young ladies seldom found themselves in such a questionable state –crawling among the shadows of a dank, deserted emporium like some marauder. But I, being a Holmes, welcomed these singular predicaments.

 Crouching under a counter, I swiped my black bangs aside and held up the anonymous telegram wired to Scotland Yard, the cryptic words lit by a sliver of moonlight.


 Given the Yard’s usual state of incompetence, it hardly came as a surprise those bunglers had failed to decipher so simple a message, and with Uncle Sherlock attending to a case in Paris, the Yard turned to me. It wasn’t difficult to see the words formed a substitution cipher of reversed alphabets: A’s replaced Z’s, B’s replaced Y’s, C’s with X’s, etc until the message read:


 As usual, once my deductive powers provided the Scotland-Yarders the information they required, they cast me to the sidelines, refusing me to partake in their investigations. I presumed their sentiments stemmed their primeval notions of the ‘weaker sex’. I snorted and flexed the digits sticking out from my glove. If only they knew of the more unconventional powers at my disposal…

Notes: I like the idea, but there’s too much telling in this opening. I would let the current scene play out without much interruption and then show her help being rejected by Scotland Yard in an active scene/dialogue. The voice in the opening paragraph is probably too dated to appeal to teens, though I understand why you made this narrative choice, so it’s more a matter of opinion.

Verdict: Not Hooked

4. YA Fantasy

Bernarda manages to pull the bucket out from the well and onto its rocky ledge, in spite of her small frame. A sigh leaves her breath when she sets the tattered vessel on the callous ground. She reminisces of her beloved home, in Pierdras Negras, her family left behind eight months before, to settle in this rugged new land.

Notes: “Small frame” isn’t cliche but is an overused description in my opinion. The action in this scene isn’t inherently interesting and the voice isn’t strong enough to catch the reader’s attention on its own. “A sigh leaves her breath” is awkwardly worded. Avoid repeating the adjective-noun construction: “rocky ledge,” “tattered vessel,” “callous ground,” “beloved home.” Used too often, it gives the writing an awkward rhythm.

Verdict: Not Hooked

5. Literary

On the second Monday of September, Judy Talton put on the new jeans she’d run through three washing cycles and a fatigue jacket she’d found at the Salvation Army resale shop, went to the Student Union, and took a seat for the first time on the Freak side of the Tune Room.

 She waited to see what would happen.

 She’d only been here twice before, once with some other girls from her dorm who’d gone to meet guys, and the other with a lame Sigma Pi fix up. But that had been last year, before it mattered where you sat, before the looming draft Lottery had made the Tune Room the focal point for opposing campus factions—Greeks and Freaks.

 She crossed her legs to cover the still too-bright orange threads that snaked down her seams and considered the entire expanse of the room, splattered in as many posters against the war as for next month’s Homecoming game.

Notes: The voice is awkward in spots. The first sentence is a challenge to read and runs on for too long. The reader doesn’t know why “three washing cycles is relevant initially which contributes to the confusion. I don’t know what a “Tune Room” is, but maybe other readers will understand this. I would like more sense of motivation, goal, or conflict to keep the reader interested.

Verdict: Not Hooked

6. MG Mystery

Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and mini-me Elvis walk into a crowded middle school cafeteria.

 Sounds like the set-up for a great joke, right?

 There was nothing funny about it.

 At lunch I was peeling back a rubbery taco shell to see what was so squishy inside, when the giggling started. My best friend Owen said, “Uh-oh. Parental units incoming.”

I turned around. Uh-oh was right. Dad had on his wedding white jumpsuit covered in bling with peacock feathers running down the legs. His chest toupee fluffed out from a deep V and his head hair had so much wax in it, it shone like hard plastic in the bright fluorescent lights. Mom wore her pink satin strapless gown, platinum white wig, stick-on mole and bright red lipstick. My four-year-old brother Robby was decked out in an identical kid-size version of Dad’s outfit.

 Mom swished her skirt and sang in a breathy voice that sounded like she’d gotten the wind knocked out of her, “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday Miss Trew-ew.” She grabbed me in a hug so tight, I thought my eyeballs might pop right out of my skull. Instead one of her fake boobs popped out the top of her dress.

Notes: I think the references to Elvis and Marilyn Monroe are largely going to be lost on middle grade readers, but this isn’t necessarily a big deal if other elements of the opening are compelling. “Wedding white,” and “fluorescent lights” don’t sound like descriptions that would come from a child. The descriptions could be clearer since you’re shooting for a young audience. For example “fake hair glued on his chest” would mean a lot more to a nine-year-old reader than “chest toupee.”

Verdict: Not Hooked

7. Thriller

Missy splashed Tad and swam out to deeper water. She signaled for him to follow as she bounced up and down off the gravel river bed. She grew tired of lounging in the warmest part of the river cove. It was more like sitting in a bath than cooling off, and the day warmed to a muggy eighty-eight degrees. Only a day at the river made the heat tolerable. A day that dogs stretched out on shady porches; elderly people stayed inside with the air blowing full blast. Kids flocked to the river swimming hole for relief.

 Dozens of tanned bodies piled into the cove this summer day. It was a wide “C” shaped swimming hole with a white gravel beach. This area had no water current. Anyone who ventured beyond the cove could get pulled away by the undertow. Some people paddled boats up and down the river, but the younger kids preferred the safety of the cove.

Trees and brush lined the shoreline making it seem remote though the town was nearby. This appealed to kids of all ages, particularly Missy.

Notes: There’s nothing inherently captivating about this opening. You set the scene well, but there’s too much focus on describing the cove and not enough focus on pulling the reader into the story with personality, conflict, motivation, etc. I would specify that Missy is a child in the opening paragraph to avoid any confusion.

Verdict: Not Hooked

8. MG Mainstream

Nico Sandoval-Arthur was a fat hispanic kid with two dads and no mom. Now you’re probably thinking ‘what a loser,’ which just shows how wrong a person can be because Nico’s life was awesome. That morning Dad had woken up and had a brainwave, and it was about time. It was his first one since ‘Letters for Polar Bears’ and he’d been like a polar bear in a hot desert ever since its collapse. Nico’s other dad, Clive, was singing when he made breakfast. Clive knew that Dad working on one of his brainwaves meant fun and adventure for all three of them.

Notes: I like the premise, and I like what you’re trying to do with the opening, but the voice isn’t working for me. I don’t think most readers will associate being fat, Hispanic, and having two dads with being a “loser,” which means you’re incorrectly assessing your reader’s opinion in the second sentence. This can create an immediate disconnect. There’s no hint of conflict.

Verdict: Not Hooked

9. Mainstream

“HAIR LIKE round snake.”

There was complete silence.

“Hair like telephone wire, papa.” She added after some thought. “Hair like nest.” Now she turned around to face Tara.

 In full display of bad duel etiquette, Tara’s-lack-of-experience-with-children sat there like the elephant in this car. She opened her mouth to say something and closed it. In all potential scenarios she was the loser.

“Hair like mad grass.” The girl tilted her face and studied Tara’s head with an acute eye that only comes with years of experience. “Hair like broomsticks.” She declared.

Notes: I don’t know what’s going on in this opening. I assume they’re playing some kind of game. My interest isn’t piqued enough to want to continue reading to figure it out.

Verdict: Not Hooked

10. YA Science Fiction

El always said that the insane aren’t believers. Now, I see what she means. For weeks I’ve felt normal, like my old self again,as if I’m at home instead of in rehab. Hours out of your body, lost time, brain wandering through simulation after simulation, catheters and tubing awash in a flux of endless chemicals, all in the name of treatment- it’s no wonder I appear to them as insane. Each hit edges me away from the pain, and I start to feel something akin to normal. Not that any one of us as humans know the definition of the word.

Notes: I don’t know what the first sentence is supposed to mean in relation to the rest of the paragraph. The last sentence is fairly cliché as not knowing the definition of normal is a pretty common concept. Overall, the voice isn’t strong enough.

Verdict: Not Hooked

11. MG Fantasy

Arion glowered, “I thought you two wanted to be in the army. What’s changed, Rainia? Have you become a coward overnight?”

The Pixie shrugged helplessly, “It’s not like it don’t want to join. It’s just…. Arion, don’t you think you’re taking this a little too far? If we all simply waited a year—”

 “But I don’t want to wait a year! Don’t you understand? The war is starting now, and if I don’t join soon, I might never get the chance. You and Ferik were going to help me. We were going to do this together. What in the realm could have possibly changed your mind?”

Notes: This doesn’t read like middle grade. Dropping the reader into this dialogue is more confusing than it is intriguing. There aren’t any hints of a unique story, strong voice, or compelling conflict. A war between/among fantasy creatures is extremely common so the opening needs more to stand out.

Verdict: Not Hooked

12. YA Fantasy

Mr. Rothenburg had a family once, a wife, and a daughter. Until a freak accident stole his little girl from him. She was only seven when it happened. Shortly after the accident—about year later—his wife left, unable to cope with the loss of their child, nor with the husband who crawled into a bottle to try and forget, or at the very least, to carry himself in a perpetual cycle of numbness.

Notes: There’s nothing about this that seems like YA. This reads more like a query letter or synopsis rather than a novel opening. There’s too much telling.

Verdict: Not Hooked

13. MG Mainstream

Henry McCarthy was miserable. This was going to be the worst summer vacation ever!

 He jammed a blue push pin into the world map hanging on the wall next to his bed. The pin now covered London, England. A hundred colored pins peppered the map. These were all the places he wanted to travel to someday. He wanted to have adventures just like his mom and dad. But was he going to London or Egypt or Africa this summer? Nooo! Henry and his little sister Abigale were going to Nantucket Island to stay with their mother’s Great Aunt Maggie. Mom and dad were going to London to work at the Natural History Museum.

Notes: The opening concept of having the worst summer vacation ever isn’t particularly fresh or unique. It’s a bit confusing why he’s putting a pushpin on London. Does he use the map to mark where he wants to go or where his parents are going?

Verdict: Not Hooked

14. Historical

The sound of gunfire, distant but distinct, interrupting a fitful dream. Victorine raised up with a start, sleep’s languor quickly departing like darkness does when so much as a candle is lit. She looked over at the tall bedroom windows, which had been left half open to ease the withering July heat. The young woman sat and listened closely, but all she heard was the gentle cooing of doves on the roof above. An only child, her father the Count had taught her to hunt from an early age upon the wide-open game wardens which were part of the Lafourcade family estate outside Soissons. She was quite familiar with the sound of gunfire.

Notes: Opening with a character waking up is a trope. I would like more personality or voice to catch the reader’s interest.

Verdict: Not Hooked

15. MG Fantasy

Travelers who wander through Shandura say that it possesses an inspirational beauty comparable to the joy you feel when you finally reach the top of a mountain and are rewarded with a breathtaking view. Well, that’s what the Shortfellow family felt every time they travelled throughout the once magical realm of Shandura, with its exotic lush forests, flowering meadows, grasslands and wetlands teaming with life, all except for one region, Raven’s Knoll.

 There was no way you could just, stumble upon Raven’s Knoll. It was located at the extreme north end of Shandura. Perched high on its solid rock peninsula, it was the perfect place for the inhabitants to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, and they deliberately planned it that way.

 The inhabitants had masterfully carved out of the mountain, an enormous foreboding wall facing all of the land, creating the illusion of a massive dark fortress towering over the tiny villages that were scattered across the valley below.

The one and only narrow, winding road going in or out had also been hollowed out of the granite cliffs. It had not always been that way, but those that now lived there, specifically designed the road to make anyone who dared enter, feel small and helpless.

 This is where a very old Diddikai Shortfellow, leading his clan of Hopgoblins was going. Hops as they were affectionately called after the natural spring in their step, were pudgy little people that seldom grew taller than four feet high, with big pointed ears, plump cheeks and big round noses and would never admit that they were distantly related to the evil Hobgoblins.

Notes: Overall, this kept my attention throughout and the writing is strong. The first sentence is my biggest complaint because reaching the top of a mountain isn’t something most readers can relate to so the comparison isn’t particularly illuminating. I would expect a young protagonist to be introduced soon as most modern middle grade readers struggle to connect to a conflict without a young protagonist.

Verdict: Hooked

16. MG Fantasy

Taylor May Dawson was sure this would be the chocolate recipe to finally win the contest and beat her friend, her nemesis, Sierra. She jokingly referred to her in private, as her “Fremesis”.

Taylor slid her stylishly large framed glasses up close to her face with one finger and with the other hand, scattered one more handful of rainbow colored sprinkles across her chocolaty creation. Taylor loved her some sprinkles.

 It was gooey, chocolaty, and loaded with colorful sprinkles. What a winner, she thought. Although her chances of winning were good, she has yet to win. There were only three of them in the club, Sierra, Aleah, and herself. They proudly called themselves “The Chocolate Gossip Party”.

Notes: I like the idea, but the narration doesn’t flow well and is awkward in several places. For example, the repetition of “sprinkles” is clunky. I’d like to know more about why Taylor wants to beat Sierra. I would also like to be moved more quickly into the scene and setting.

Verdict: Not Hooked

17. Literary

The smell of oil soap lingered from the sanctuary into the kitchen of fellowship hall kitchen where Genevieve filled communion cups with grape juice. Gen watched the gardener circle his mower around the Stonebrook Methodist Church sign through the window and remembered helping Ms. Harden fill communion cups on the Saturdays when she was a little girl. Of all of the foster parents Gen and her sisters were sent to, Ms. Harden was the kindest. She used to say that each one of the communion cups represented forgiveness. She warned them to forgive at least one person of wrongdoing every time they had the Lord’s Supper, otherwise if they died before the next communion Sunday they would surely go to hell. If Gen took the time to recall every offense in her life, she’d have to drink the whole tray every Sunday for a year to make it into heaven.

Notes: There’s too much telling and backstory right out of the gate. I’d like more voice or a compelling motivation or goal to get the reader invested in an otherwise mundane situation.

Verdict: Not Hooked

18. Thriller

Jack Hosmer pressed the dial button on the cell phone that his assistant had just handed him. It rang once. The voice that answered was low and muffled–unfamiliar to Hosmer.

“Have enough dead customers yet?”

Hosmer snapped back, “Who is this? What do you want?”

 “As far as you’re concerned, I don’t have a name. What I want is five million dollars.”

Hosmer sat up straighter in his chair. As director of security for TMK Pharmaceuticals, he had fielded his share of nonsense calls. This was different. Hosmer’s assistant had received a call earlier in the morning informing her that a cell phone was lying under a dumpster in the loading dock. Her instructions were to give the phone directly to Hosmer.

Notes: Dropping the reader straight into the action can work, but only if you’re able to create an immediate connection with the character and that isn’t happening here. It seems as if you’re starting the story too early. I’d prefer to learn more about Jack and what’s going on in his life (his motivation, his troubles in life) before jumping straight into the mysterious call.

Verdict: Not Hooked

19. Romance

7:00 am Wednesday morning Jayleen Armstrong is in her office seated at her desk.

 Normally when she comes in early on a Wednesday, it is to meet with one of the three young female employees whom she is mentoring. Her focus this morning was on getting a ticket to attend the university’s Annual Strategic Vision Dinner, three months from now. The dinner is for Executive administration. As usual 50 tickets are available on a first come basis for all other staff.

Notes: The writing is strangely formal. I would shoot for more casual language. Words and phrases like “it is,” “whom,” “attend,” and even “her focus” and “are available” read more like nonfiction and don’t captivate the reader.

Verdict: Not Hooked

20. Mainstream

Dry brown leaves drifted down from the tall oak trees crunching under their shoes. As they trudged up the hill to Sunday services, swirls of dust surrounded them. No hope of keeping Sunday clothes or patent leather shoes looking like anything in the heat and dust of late August.

“Mama, come October I’m going to be leaving for Birmingham.”

 “Now Lillian Grace, we’ve talked about this before. Me and your daddy don’t want you going off to no big city the likes of Birmingham. You just need to stay here, buy that farm your daddy has been telling you about…, and just stay here where you belong.”

 “Mama, I am leaving!”

Notes: The dialogue feels stilted and unnatural, especially “Now Lillian Grace.” Bringing the reader in closer to the protagonist would help increase the reader’s investment in what’s occurring.

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: What changes have you made to your opening after reading the submissions?

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14 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 5

  1. jennavandenberg says:

    I liked #8 the best, and I agree with Ellen about cutting the “loser” part. Maybe something like this…

    Nico Sandoval-Arthur was a fat hispanic kid with two dads and no mom. His life was awesome and about to get better. That morning Dad had woken up…

  2. Bjorn Schievers says:

    #1 This is mine. Despite the fact Ellen is not hooked I’m not unhappy with her comments. It’s a confirmation of where I thought I was at. English is not my first language, so I got work to do. But it gives me hope.
    #3 I’m not a teen. But I think part of the fun in reading Victorian/Edwardian stuff is the way they talk. And that’s not for everybody, but I assume it is something fans of the detective would enjoy.
    #4 The only comment I can think of after reading the other openings is I can see it needs more action.
    #6 LOL. Maybe a Michael Jackson impersonator could be equally awkward? Enjoyable read!
    #8 Maybe you could replace the second line with “Some people might call him a loser…” but despite the flaws I enjoyed reading it.
    #10 I’m curious about the story but the opening had me quite confused.
    #14 I see why it’s a cliche to open with someone waking up and how this opening wouldn’t pass, but I found it quite enjoyable to read.
    #15 Thumbs up!
    #16 I also like the idea. 🙂

  3. Nicole L Ochoa says:

    I haven’t made any changes to my opening yet, but I am focusing on balancing my show/tell/dialog in my current writing. I wish there was some magic formula I could follow. BTW bravo everyone for the work you have done, it’s tough putting your work out there and a big high five to Ellen for coaching us for FREE! You rock!

    I saw this quote today and totally identified with it:
    “Give someone a book, they’ll read for a day. Teach someone to write a book and they’ll spend a lifetime mired in paralyzing self-doubt.”

  4. Douglas Hazelrigg says:

    Here’s my question/concern. I think of all the great novels of the past — the ones people actually read, anyway — and how many of them take their time in developing… no attention-grabbing opening, etc. I guess my question is, is this approach something that chiefly has the modern, easily-distracted reader in mind?

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Looking at novels written even as recently as 20 years ago is not going to represent the modern market. Most classic novels have many elements that would be difficult to sell to modern readers.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Another thing to keep in mind is that there are more aspiring writers today than ever before. Agents are looking through dozens to hundreds of submissions at a time. Only something truly unique and captivating is going to stand out in such a competitive market.

  5. Douglas Hazelrigg says:

    Bjorn — appreciate the individual reviews! Mine was #14, by the way, and I pretty much knew it would be canked because it starts in a dream LOL. I’ve rewritten it a bit so it begins in late morning 🙂

    • Bjorn Schievers says:

      Hi Douglas, the main reason we’re all here is we want professional comments from Ellen. But I figure a comment from another person who’s learning might be encouraging to try again. The ones where I don’t comment I usually just don’t know what to say. 🙂 Most of what I read here I do enjoy in some shape or form. I love the concept of failing forward, every time you fail you’re one step closer. 😉

  6. Bjorn Schievers says:

    Ellen Brock: What changes have you made to your opening after reading the submissions?

    I’m still working on it but I inserted a paragraph at the beginning that uses the exercise to Create Deep Realistic Characters. I took some of that and used it to introduce the main character.

    “Aryas had a solemn duty to spread Arkan Civilization to all corners of the world. Only chaos and evil could exist outside the borders of the Empire. Why any Province would choose to leave was beyond his comprehension. But his task was not to question anything, he had orders.”

    I also took several words out that Ellen pointed out as awkward or unnatural. I plan to look at the openings that worked best again tonight and see how I can improve my voice and the uniqueness of the scene.

  7. Hailey says:

    Reading all of these openings has made me realize that I’m probably taking too long to have my MC actually do anything. He’s a first-person narrator, so it’s very easy to have him just explain everything internally instead of showing it through example in scenes.
    I’ve decided to start writing out my beginning again, through to the point I’m currently at, then continue from there. It’s partly to improve the progression of things, and partly to cut out a character that’s in most scenes, but doesn’t add anything my MC couldn’t be doing instead.

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