“I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 6

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

Catriona and her Uncle paraded down the stairs rhythmically to the music. They paused for a few seconds when they reached the last step. Today is everything she dreamt it would be. She glanced over at her mom dabbing tears from her cheeks, pride beamed from her glossy onyx eyes.

Notes: The writing isn’t strong enough yet. Avoid expected/common phrases like “dabbing tears” and “pride beamed.” It’s not clear why they are parading down the stairs to music and this leaves the reader without anything to visualize.

Verdict: Not Hooked

2. MG Fantasy

It’s Sunday and as usual I’m taking old Mr Dodson his dinner, wrapped in one of Mum’s tea towels. ‘How’s it going, lad?’ he says from his doorstep. I ain’t in the mood for small talk but he won’t let it rest. ‘How’s school?’

 ‘We’re doing this project on explorers,’ I tell him.

 Suddenly, he stands stock still with this dreamy look on his face and invites me in. I ain’t never been inside Mr Dodson’s house before, not in all the years I’ve been going over, never wanted to either. Mostly, I just get a quid for fetching him his Sunday roast.

Notes: I think you’re moving too quickly and this causes the opening to feel unnatural or contrived. He happens to immediately mention his project on explorers to Mr. Dodson who clearly is going to turn out to be an explorer. I would include clues that Mr. Dodson is an explorer and/or some distress or difficulty with the project on explorers. Either option would make Mr. Dodson’s involvement more plausible.

Verdict: Not Hooked

3. Thriller

Off came the blazer. Out came the pins in her hair. Nudging curls out of her way, she pulled open one, two, three buttons of her blouse. The lift crept upward, a hidden bell dinging as each floor approached from above and sank below. With a fingertip, she swept beads of sweat from her hairline, the evidence of a long day in the office, and was just putting away her lipstick when the doors opened with a polite ‘whoosh’.

 Ellen stepped onto the plush hallway carpet. This place was the very opposite of her own disappointing building, which had no lift, only a concrete stairwell and sickly potted plants.

 She rang Alec’s bell and leaned against the wall. Her feet were screaming in platform heels. But she refused to give in to sensible shoes like the ones Ruth wore, literally lowering herself. Unlike Ellen, Ruth was tall enough to look down on the men in the office, and could afford to lose inches from her heels. But that wasn’t why Ruth wore flat shoes; it was because she was the type of miserable person that takes no pleasure in anything, least of all her appearance.

 The lift whooshed open again, and out stepped a silver-haired man. His eyes furtively locked onto Ellen as he passed her, then headed for another flat and went inside.

 Alec was making her wait. She despised that. Irritation flared in her as she pushed the bell again, holding it for a little longer this time,

Notes: This kept my attention throughout. The first paragraph is my least favorite because most of the details seem unimportant or aren’t given clear relevance. The paragraph about Ruth is what really sealed the deal for me because the descriptions have a lot of voice. There’s also the clear promise of conflict.

Verdict: Hooked

4. Mainstream

I was born on the wrong side of the tracks. The few childhood memories I have, are not pleasant ones.

 The therapist they forced me to talk to three times a week in Juve, said my brain blocked those memories to protect me from intense trauma.

 I can’t think of anything worse than the memories I do have and being semi-locked up in a juvenile detention place from the ages of thirteen to eighteen had been a picnic compared to what I had to live through and do to survive.

Notes: I think you’re focusing too much on the premise of the story rather than on pulling the reader into a compelling scene. Childhood trauma is a pretty common basis for novels so this opening isn’t highlighting your writing in a way that stands out.

Verdict: Not Hooked

5. YA Mainstream

Uh-oh. It was back and Jacob was definitely caught off guard. Two Ikea issued sentinels dutifully kept post on each side of Jacob’s captain’s bed. Both lamps radiated megawatts of eye piercing super brightness, burning holes through their cheap, albeit trendy, white plastic shields. But they still could not shed any light on the unseen presence that kept Jacob paralyzed in the middle of his bed like a fallen statue of Christ of the Ozarks. All Jacob could do was to wait, which was by far the worst part of this sufficiently freakish ordeal. And unfortunately for poor Jacob, he was all too familiar with the drill. He would be motionless, speechless and caked in fear until this unwanted visitor was gone.

 Jacob frantically scanned his room with the only moving parts attached to his body, his signature Marceau hazel green eyes, a gift from his absentee father.

Notes: The writing is frequently awkward or confusing. “Two Ikea issued sentinels” led me to think he was actually at Ikea and you were referring to security guards or staff. “Captain’s bed” makes me think he is a child, which makes this seem like middle grade rather than young adult. The descriptions are odd/awkward and it’s not clear if they are meant as tongue in cheek. For example, “like a fallen statue of Christ of the Ozarks” and “his signature Marceau hazel green eyes.”

Verdict: Not Hooked

6. Literary

She smiled at me, clearly in pain, revealing her crooked smile with a shade of wickedness, although to me, that was the image of kindness and shelter. She squinted, trying to warm her numb fingers in the folds of her coat. When she looked at my scrawny figure I could read the anguish in her faded green eyes, which caught the shades of the water and the rice plants that particular day.

 I remember very clearly the afternoon when they took my mother away. I was barely seven years old and I was working with her on the rice fields

Notes: It’s not clear if the “she” in the first paragraph is someone he’s actively seeing or is part of his memory of his mother. Normally starting with a memory isn’t a good idea because the reader isn’t invested in the character yet.

Verdict: Not Hooked

7. Fantasy

Peter was walking through the long, wood panelled halls of his mansion, all alone, with a lit candle dripping hot wax on his fingers. He remembered Gwen telling him that his parents were planning to set up electricity in the house before they were taken, but the plan never came to fruition after all that happened.

 The cold air of April nights greeted him on the terrace, as he gazed towards the twinkling lights of the village. He placed the extinguished candle upon the marble balustrade and began to pick at the solid wax on his hands, his gaze sliding towards the tall linden trees in front of the manor. Under the faint moonlight, he could decipher the familiar shapes on the ground, the small heap of earth under the trees where his grandmother used to sit.

Notes: There’s not enough to keep the reader interested. The focus on the candle and wax take up space without revealing anything about Peter.

Verdict: Not Hooked

8. Science Fiction

Stephen stood on the length of a rusted, green, steel I–beam. Panic pulsed up in ice cold waves from his feet to his chest, as he watched his handbook, “Tying Proper Knots”, fall two hundred feet through the open air toward the gray storm of a lake below.

 The walking wire he had relied on for the first half of his crossing, was broken and dangling between the I-beam platform where he stood, and the I-beam platform in the distance, one hundred feet ahead.

Notes: I like that you’re starting at an interesting moment, but the first sentence is awkward due to the list of adjectives. Rather than “a rusted, green, steel I-beam,” I would simplify the description to something like “a rusted beam.” The description of his panic is too long and “ice cold waves” teeters on cliché to me. The voice lacks a pop of originality.

Verdict: Not Hooked

9. Thriller

“They’re rounding us up and branding us now,” Zari said to the group of women in the cell. All eyes turned to her. “It’s like we’re animals.” She rubbed her arm where the blood had been taken, the bandaid had already peeled off the micro marker that carried the Genetic ID.

“Forced to have blood taken, forced into a cell for the night, forced to be known by a Genetic ID code for the rest of our lives.”

 “Is for personalized medicine,” a tiny Asian woman with badly bleached hair said.

Notes: The dialogue reads like “As you know, Bob…” dialogue, meaning that the character is saying things that the other characters in the scene already know. This reads a bit awkwardly.

Verdict: Not Hooked

10. Thriller

It began with my cell ringing. Three or four times, maybe more, before I woke and realised it wasn’t a dream. I couldn’t be sure how long I had been out. All I knew, was my head felt like Babe Ruth had hit it for a home run at the top of the ninth; and my body, well I wasn’t sure how my body felt — I wasn’t sure I had brought the right one home with me. My arms and legs felt as if they had been ripped off during the night, but a quick examination confirmed they were all present and correct, only I had the feeling they had been put back in the wrong order. Had I taken a tumble or more likely been in a fight? It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last. But as my head began to clear, I remembered the divorce papers being served on me while I grabbed a late breakfast at my local diner.

Notes: I initially thought you meant he literally wasn’t sure he had brought the right body home, which got me thinking this was science fiction. Since this is marked as a thriller, I’m assuming this is meant to be symbolic but I think it’s leaning more towards confusing. I would avoid opening with the character waking up.

Verdict: Not Hooked

11. MG Fantasy

Dawn breaks and a hundred year old house emerges from the morning fog. Situated on the outskirts of a herb farm, the house belongs to the Violet family. Dark green ivy grows up its turret in which Marina sleeps.

 Her alarm clock rings and she hears a voice from the ground floor. “Marina, Marina, get up!”

 She stretches her arms lazily but hearing footsteps on the stairs to her bedroom, she jumps from the bed shouting. “Granny, I am coming.”

Notes: Opening with the character waking up is a trope. The descriptions in the first paragraph are a tad awkward, especially the last sentence. Marina’s line of dialogue is stilted. Using a contraction would help.

Verdict: Not Hooked

12. Literary

Phillipe-Pierre Fox should have become a ballet dancer. His father and his grandfather had both danced professionally in the city’s ballet, his father, as a principal dancer, and his father, as the premier danseur noble (when men’s titles were still in acceptance). Yet, the artistic director and company masters had noted an inopportune dilemma: young Phillipe-Pierre had an unusually spirited walk.

Notes: Very few readers are going to be hooked by the concept of Phillipe-Pierre not being a ballet dancer. The opening moves quickly into telling the reader about his family’s history of ballet before the reader is invested. Giving a stronger indication of why it matters that he isn’t a ballet dancer would help.

Verdict: Not Hooked

13. Romance

“Oh, crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap crapcrapcrapcrapcrap, “

I repeat this mantra again and again in a low whisper-voice. The enormity of where I am and what I am doing here finally hit and now I’m sprawled on my knees in the back hallway of the town diner. At least the wall is cool against my cheek. It gives me something to concentrate on in order to hold back the tears. There will be none of those because I refuse to cry.

 This is not me. I am not a mess. I am the opposite of a mess. Yet, here I am on a public floor, mumbling unintelligible sounds, unable to bring myself to any state that resembles my usual control.

 I should have been more prepared. Fuck. I was prepared. I planned this god-damned lunch. Insisted that it happen even though Robert tried to talk me out of it. This meeting with Robert is essential to how I move past the situation I’m in. The situation he put us in.

Notes: A character refusing to cry is pretty common in novel openings, but rarely works because the reader has no investment in the character. I think this opening could work, but clearer information needs to be given rather than vague indications of what’s occurring.

Verdict: Not Hooked

14. Science Fiction

Tuesday May 26, 2060

 My boots continue to give fight with every step I take. Please don’t let me get killed down here. I try to be quiet, but the smack and squish of the mud continues to give me away. I wish there were more paved paths, but I don’t think this area was ever developed before the Warm. Assholes.

 I climb over a dead, fallen tree and scan the area. There are no signs of life anywhere, just miles of dead trees. Some are standing, some have fallen, but all are dead. I’ve seen pictures of what places like this use to look like. It was amazing. Green everywhere, life everywhere. There were lions…large animals that looked like giant cats…and they owned the land. Maybe not here in Tennessee, but somewhere on this Earth. Nowhere now.

 Sweat and dirt gather under my finger nails as I scratch the annoying trickles under my tank top. I shouldn’t complain, 106 degrees Fahrenheit is so much better than the 110 degrees we had before the storm the other day. While the storm managed to cool us down a bit, I can’t stand the sticky heat that comes from the wet land while we heat back up. Although, again, I shouldn’t complain as we rarely do get any rain.

Notes: The premise itself isn’t strong enough to hook the reader so some sort of tension needs to be created in this scene to suck the reader into the story.

Verdict: Not Hooked

15. Mainstream

Sophie shifts boxes and suitcases in the back seat of her car to make room for her son Josh’s second guitar. She can feel a drop of sweat winding its way down her back as she places a tub filled with bedding on top of a cardboard box then wedges the guitar behind the front seats. When Sophie sits up to survey her packing skills her lungs fill with the pungent smell of teenage boy shoes. That’s an odor she doesn’t want to accompany them on their trip. She reaches for one of the plastic bags she has folded and stacked beneath the driver’s seat. Before dropping a basketball shoe in the bag she runs her thumb along its worn sole then sets that pair of shoes aside. She knows they are Josh’s favorite but they are too worn to wear. There’s no point in taking them.

Notes: What’s occurring is rather mundane so the scene needs to get to the point more quickly. There is too much emphasis on the shoes and it’s sucking up precious space on your opening page.

Verdict: Not Hooked

16. MG Fantasy

Emily’s life was ordinary and beautiful. Enemies and adventure remained safely tucked away in her imagination and stories. Sure, she played imaginary games with her six year old brother, Finley. But she was in control of those. If the wolf puffed a little too strong for the wooden teepee she built, the wolf caught a cold and her teepee stayed standing. And if the prince was not quite smart enough to rescue Finley from the wicked witch, Emily could step in and save the day with a clever escape plan.

 Every day always had a happy ending.

 Until this day.

 On this frightful day enemies had overstepped the line. They had entered her real world. And that was absolutely not okay.

Notes: I like what you’re attempting to do with this opening but the execution isn’t working. The reader is left confused about why Emily feels the need to conquer imaginary villains since they are pretend. Remember that your target readers aren’t little kids afraid of wolves and witches, they’re “big kids” (8-12). I think a slightly different approach would help, one that focuses on how she enjoys playing pretend rather than one that focuses on her ability to control scary elements of her imagination.

Verdict: Not Hooked

17. Literary

Everything is…everything is haunted. Every room, every door, every street, every store. I once loved this city, but I– I don’t think I can stay here much longer. I know I won’t stay here forever. Of course, I would have liked to.

 My name is James Thomas Spooner. JT, or just Jay for short. Although, my father – James Benjamin – calls me Bud. My brothers call me JT. My friends call me Jay. And yet, of all the names I’ve been called, my favorite was Jim. Jim. Even now I can’t help but look back at that warmest memory. No matter how it is now, it truly was good then. I suppose the past endures, but like a legend which challenges the adequacy of reality, and haunts all those for whom the sun rises.

Notes: I initially thought everything was literally haunted, but that might be because I’m always hoping to read a ghost story (my favorite). Opening with the character stating their name is considered a trope. There’s nothing about the opening that creates intrigue. The last line feels to me like it’s trying too hard.

Verdict: Not Hooked

18. Mainstream

“Will! Your friend is here!” Oscar called. He shook his head and smoothed his blue tie as he looked out the window at his son’s friend Johnny.

 Johnny drove a big white pickup, with lots of chrome and dark windows. Usually those windows were rolled down, but because of the rain, they were up this morning. That didn’t stop the sound of the bass thumping from the speakers from reaching Oscar all the way in the house, quivering his insides.

 Oscar didn’t approve of Johnny, and he wished Will would find a new friend. Will had always been a good boy, until he got involved with this Johnny person.

Notes: Having an issue with his son’s friend doesn’t tell the reader much about Oscar himself. This leaves the reader wanting more from Oscar. It almost seems as if this is Johnny’s story filtered through Oscar. Oscar needs more personality and a clearer goal.

Verdict: Not Hooked

19. Romance

Jenny pulled off her sweater and jeans and tossed them on the bed. It might not be as easy to shed the demands of her life in New Jersey for the next three weeks as it was to shed these winter clothes, but she sure intended to try.

 No appointments to schedule, no phone calls to return. No catering to her father’s demands, or placating her mother, and no dealing with the daily concerns of living and working with her boyfriend. Just three weeks of fun in the sun in Cocoa Beach, her home away from home. A wave of joy washed over her at the thought.

 She removed the lime green sundress from the garment bag and slipped it over her head, relishing the soft, cool feel of the cotton fabric against her skin.

 God, how she looked forward to these trips to Florida, but they were getting harder

 and harder to justify.

 As Steve had taken to pointing out, on a rather frequent basis lately, most people were lucky to take a vacation once a year. For her to expect to take one two or three times a year was really pushing it. How could she explain to her boyfriend — or even worse, to her parents — that these trips weren’t mere vacations, but much needed mental health breaks without kicking off her own personal Armageddon? She could just hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth now.

Notes: I like the voice and I like the clear statement of what Jenny wants. This kept my attention throughout. I will expect conflict to enter the story right away to keep the reader interested. This isn’t a flashy opening but it demonstrates a strong ability to write in a consistent and appealing voice.

Verdict: Hooked

20. MG Thriller

All survival stories share a common theme of the human brain overriding the body’s signal to give up and surrender. But Colt, a 14 year-old boy, was either too young, too stubborn or both to know he was supposed to quit. In a period of nine seconds, Colt’s greatest run of his life spiraled downward to perhaps his last.

 The 5’ 6” Colt Parker still had a massive smile plastered on his face after he just tasted some of the sweetest powder in the Tahoe Basin. He had just ripped down the backside of the mountain in waist deep powder in the dark of the night aided only by a ten-ton groomer and its lights.

Notes: I don’t think the opening line is working very well. Colt’s height is unnecessary so I would omit that until it’s relevant. It’s actually unclear what’s going on. Keep in mind your readers are 8-12. When you say “run,” they are likely to imagine literal running.

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.

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4 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume 6

  1. ccarmone says:

    Thanks so much for reviewing my story. Great perspective! It’s been a great week and I’ve learned so much. Thank You! I look forward to working with you and learning more.

  2. johnhansendk says:

    I liked #7. The mood and the fact that our antagonist’s parents “were taken” – not gone away, not vanished, but taken!

    I think I can see why the stuff about the candle is there: it starts a train of thoughts from the wax, to the electricity to the “taking” of the parents. I suggest the author considers dropping the the sentence “but the plan never came to fruition after all that happened”, because it is clear it never happened since Peter is using a candle, and it would bring the “taking” into focus if that closed the first paragraph.

    But one more thing about the candle wax: I believe people who live in mansions without electricity will use candle stick holders that are designed to be carried about without spilling the wax – which is, after all, so painful that most people would not take it so stoic as Peter.

    I would liked to know if there is a reason why Peter has gone outside. Then the author could consider getting to that point sooner, and leaving out the candle wax in the second paragraph and eventually also the mounds and the grandmother (if they don’t play an immediate role).

    Thanks for submitting!

  3. Bjorn Schievers says:

    #2 Even though it seems a bit predictable the fact that we’ve never been in the old man’s house before makes me feel curious.
    #4 I think I would start with paragraph 3 and then move on to paragraph 2, essentially deleting the first one. What do you think of that?
    #6 It’s a bit confusing trying to figure out who the person in the first paragraph is. Is it the mother or someone else? And we are learning about another person without knowing who the main character is.
    #7 I enjoyed the atmosphere even though there’s not much happening. 🙂
    #9 I’m intrigued by the idea of microchipped slaves.
    #14 I like where this could go with rewrites. 🙂
    #19 An enjoyable read.

  4. Pamela says:

    Ellen, I’ve learned so much this week! Truly excellent teaching style. I come away from writing articles a big bogged down, but your tips are fresh, compact morsels, you can takeaway and use. A pleasure not to read the same old dictums. I love your too-much-telling-and-backstory warnings as well as the dreaded waking-from-a-dream cliche. Question for you: Gone Girl, what’s your opinion of the opening? It gets away with some of these no-no’s, doesn’t it? Or is the writing so darn good, it doesn’t matter? In the future, would love your recommendations on books to look at as good examples. Say, “See XXX for excellent telling vs showing in Literary/Romance etc…” Perhaps you’ve done it and I haven’t seen it yet. (Still reading your articles.) Wonderful job so far!

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