“I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume #7

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

“Honey, I am so proud of you,” my mom coos.

 I smile, though confused. I had just walked in the door. What could I have done to be receiving such adoration already?

 I head for the kitchen, still grinning.

 Mom is talking on the phone.

 Oh.

 That explains it. She isn’t talking to me. She doesn’t even know I’m home.

“You’ve worked so hard all summer, and now graduation is really within your sights,” she continues gushing.

 My dad doesn’t look up from the cilantro he’s chopping, but I know he’s pissed. He hates when mom talks on the phone with her students, worried she’ll get sued someday.

Notes: In a way, I like what you’re doing with this opening, but I think in the end the narrator ends up coming across as jealous. I’m not sure if the mother is meant to look neglectful, but caring about her students seems like a positive trait so the narrator complaining about it makes him/her seem more negative. The last line seems odd to me because there’s no reason I can see that she would be sued for taking a call from a student at home.

Verdict: Not Hooked

2. Science Fiction

James Tate awoke as if disturbed from deep sleep, and slowly sat upright, unfocused. His mind felt as unclear as the heavy overcast that darkened the morning sky. For some minutes he just sat in the near darkness, staring at nothing.

Notes: This is a very expected/typical opening with the character waking up. This isn’t a strong way to start the novel because it doesn’t stand out.

Verdict: Not Hooked

3. YA Fantasy

Nobody ever checked the warehouse. For almost twenty years, it stood decrepit and worn-down, barely a shadow of the factory it used to be. The police, health inspectors, city council and even the property owner never paid a visit.

 A good thing, too. Because if they did, they’d notice the suspicious trail of footsteps in the dirt outside, the colorful graffiti on the roof above, and the pumping of a loudspeaker from dawn till dusk. Because this conveniently-sized, conveniently adult-free zone on the rougher side of town was perfect. Perfect for parties, perfect for leaping across the person-sized gap between the warehouse and the garage through a maze of barbed wire. Oh, did I mention? This was the hangout of an extreme parkour club. Also where I spent my weekends and Thursday afternoons.

Notes: I really like the first line, but it sets up (in my mind) a totally different story. I expected the warehouse to be the location of a dead body or a kidnapping victim or maybe some stolen goods, so finding out it’s being used as a parkour club is a lot less exciting than what I initially imagined. Otherwise, I think the introduction to the parkour club works okay, but I would expect to move into a scene very soon.

Verdict: Not Hooked

4. YA Science Fiction

On his way to the obligatory council, Taj walks past the outside morning teaching of the young ones. They’ve all turned ten this suncycle and thus their education begins. He can remember all too well when he first got to know about the opposite humans. Without being aware of it, his gaze wanders towards the sun.

Notes: The voice doesn’t sound like YA. The phrase “outside morning teaching” reads very awkwardly. The use of “thus” seems too formal to me. I don’t know what “opposite humans” means and this strange term is skimmed past with no indication of what it refers to.

Verdict: Not Hooked

5. Mainstream

Peter Kirby stands on a ladder leant against the shed and pulls felt tacks from the pocket of his overalls. A dozen more will see it off, but the next tack doesn’t bite. “Damn!” He hits the roof with the hammer and it produces a dull thud. He descends the ladder and goes into the shed to peer up at the roof timbers. He picks up a screwdriver and pokes the soft and spongy wood.

 “Peter, dinner’s ready.” His mother’s call is distant.

 “Coming, mother.” He tears at the wood and it comes easily away in his hands. It’s going to be a big job. He heads back towards the bungalow.

 His mother loves the garden.

Notes: The reader doesn’t get a clear sense of what the “point” is behind this scene. More personality or more motivation would help. Alternatively, you could provide a better sense of the problem. Why does it matter if this is a big job? The scene needs some sort of emotional connection with the reader.

Verdict: Not Hooked

6. MG Fantasy

I put my hand on the metal gate. It felt cold and hard under my fingers. I gripped the centre bar and cautiously nudged it a little. It was latched from the other side. I squinted my eyes in the darkness to try and see down the long alley way. There were old boxes, rubbish bins, graffiti and most importantly, right at the back, I could just make out a door. The Ally was messy and full of all sorts of rubbish. I couldn’t be sure if it was safe, but it probably was, I suppose.

Notes: The reader isn’t given sufficient reason to care about this gate or what’s behind it. The third sentence seems too descriptive and could be cut down to simply “I nudged it a little.” “Squinted my eyes” could just be “squinted.”

Verdict: Not Hooked

7. Mainstream

The windshield wipers slapped sheets of water off the windshield as fast as the downpour could replenish it. The fan on the defrost wheezed out tepid air creating an incredibly small patch of clear window Sophie could peer through. Lightening crackled across the sky illuminating the street for the briefest of moments before it was plunged back into darkness. A sign appeared on the side of the road and was gone just as quickly. The clock on the dash read eight-thirty AM.

“I hate driving in the rain. Can’t see a thing, stupid wipers and defrost don’t work properly. What was that sign we just passed?” Sophie said.

Notes: The first paragraph feels like a list of descriptions that aren’t tying together to create a clear vibe or tone. Is the rain and the time important/relevant? If they aren’t, I would focus on what is important/relevant.

Verdict: Not Hooked

8. YA Mainstream

He fiddled with the postcard sitting on the rack. It showed a picture of a smiling family as they lounged in the sand with the children holding seashells to their ear. Jude grazed the edges of it before putting it back.

 He trudged back to the front of the store where his grandma was helping a customer decide between a guide book of the town or a hat covered in flowers. He scuffed.

“What do you think of the shop?” His grandpa appeared from behind him, clamping a hand on Jude’s shoulder. Jude jumped. His grandpa must have weighed over two hundred pounds, but he was like a mouse sneaking up behind him. “We spent a good heap of our money on this place. It’s your grandma’s dream.”

Jude nodded. They both watched his grandma hug the girl as if she was her daughter before sending the little girl on her way. She spotted them and grinned, hobbling over. “She’s a regular. She comes in here all the time, but she never buys anything.”

 “Why not?”

His grandma said, “Her parents don’t have much, so she doesn’t have a lot to spend on frivolous things.”

Notes: This reads more like middle grade than young adult. There isn’t enough personality, motivation, or emotion from Jude to get the reader invested in him.

Verdict: Not Hooked

9. MG Fantasy

Six o’clock was the last hour of tranquility on the Isle of Spundoo! A place where fairies roam freely and where a rose has no need for thorns! In that tranquil hour something changed all that! A creature from the dark side of fairyland, a vulturous scoundrel, by the name Pilgrim Grimmer, arrived on a ship unseen in the port Spundoo. He wore a black coat weighted down with vials of dark magic potions and powders. He poured, mixed, and stirred up a perfectly wicked mix, solely to spellbound his captives! Without a thought or care, he left behind a fearful mystery and strange occurrences.

Notes: The exclamation points are very distracting and make it difficult to read the excerpt. I would cut all of them. The idea seems interesting but the writing will need to become more active/immediate very soon.

Verdict: Not Hooked

10. Mainstream

They come in one at a time, or in pairs. In close-knit families, they come in front of a wake of relatives trailing behind like streamers from a balloon. If they have jobs that pay in cash, they come in after work. They walk in, mostly, on their own. Some arrive hanging off the shoulder of a spouse or friend. The worst ones are brought in by ambulance, having been crushed in a car, tossed from a van, catapulted into trees from a motorcycle, shot into the air while crossing the street, or just shot.

 The ten-year old boy who came in that Saturday morning was picked off the end of a soccer field in the middle of a game. Draped across the hooked arms of his pony-tailed mother, he was accompanied by his coach. The father, at home reading Barron’s, was on his way.

 I was hoping for a quiet shift. But I knew as soon as I saw the mother with her cargo bolting up the ramp that I’d be running around for hours, or all day. She came to a dead stop in front of the Emergency Room Registration desk. The low-hum din in the Waiting Area was subdued momentarily by her molten presence; the only sound, obnoxious in its irrelevance, came from a chorus of TV’s hinged off the walls. She jabbed through the encircling blare with a single, flat note of a chord of despair: “Help.”

Notes: The descriptions seem unnecessarily complicated. The first two sentences tell the reader that “they” come one at a time, or in pairs, or in families, which ultimately tells the reader that they come solo or in groups of any size which isn’t much of an observation at all. The first paragraph seems as if it’s setting up something far more mysterious than an emergency room. Watch your sentence structure – “The father, at home reading Barron’s, was on his way” doesn’t make sense because it means the father is both at home and on his way. It should read: “The father, who had been at home reading Barron’s, was on his way.”

Verdict: Not Hooked

11. YA Mainstream

Kaya was used to being greeted by odd stares during her annual ride into town. Most of these people wanted to see an elk grilled and waiting for them on their dinner plates, not one pulling a sled of animal pelts and saddled by a girl with high hopes of making a few coin. She assumed the townsfolk would be used to seeing her ride in, she definitely was no stranger here.

Notes: I was confused initially and thought she actually was the elk and that people wanted to eat her. I would rephrase to fix this. It would probably be stronger to show the townsfolk staring at her and then focus on Kaya’s feelings and motivation.

Verdict: Not Hooked

12. YA Mainstream

Eva pressed her face against the school bus window. The building across the river reached upwards and both melded and grew sharply out of the urban prairie landscape. Wide, circular walls of glass and metal were topped with a narrow tower of exposed iron framework. It spoke of strong foundations with work left unfinished, perhaps not meant for completion. The sight of the human rights museum provided Eva with the usual thrill, not only for its beauty, but for a feeling of pride in her hometown (a feeling somewhat hard to come by in this mid-sized, mid-country prairie city)—it was a sight she never tired of. The jarring bumps of the school bus hitting a typical Winnipeg pothole brought her back to the present.

 Eva pulled her mixed caramels from her packsack and feeling obliged to share, offered them to her seatmate Rachel.

“The blue wrappers are the prettiest,” Rachel said, taking one from the bag.

Notes: This seems to be middle grade, not young adult. Unless Eva’s feelings about her town are directly relevant to her motivation, goal, or the progression of the scene, I would cut it. It feels strangely irrelevant and also mature given the conversation that follows is about candy wrappers.

Verdict: Not Hooked

13. Mainstream

Amanda ran up Main Street, the frigid night air biting at her hands and face.

 Where the hell is he going?!, she wondered, fretfully. She dodged her way around random groups of fellow college students, barely registering their drunken discussions, shouts, and cackles as she moved farther and farther away from the main strip of bars.

 She found him just as he was about to enter the doorway of his apartment, above Sal’s Pizzeria. She shrieked as the heel of her suede boots slid on the icy pavement, her arms flailing in an attempt to maintain her balance. Despite her intoxication and the slippery conditions, she managed to reach him without falling.

“Adrian! Wait!” she pleaded as she ran up to him.

 He stopped and turned, “You’re a fucking whore, Amanda!”

 “Baby, what are you talking about? I don’t understand. What did I do?!”

Notes: This is a situation where hiding what’s going on is more problematic than intriguing. I would lead into this scene and start the novel a bit earlier to orient the reader. Because the reader has no connection with Amanda, their dialogue seems melodramatic.

Verdict: Not Hooked

14. Mainstream

“I’m here. The party can begin!”

Addison looked back and saw the twerp that just walked in, late she might add, to orientation. He not only had come late, but he’d made a scene doing it. Figured that cocky a-holes like that wouldn’t be content with just slipping in. They’d have to announce themselves as well.

“Can you believe him?” she asked her roommate, Shelly, next to her.

“Huh?”

 “The way he just came in disrupting everything?”

 “What?”

When Addison looked at her new friend, really looked, she noticed she wasn’t paying attention. Following her eyes, she saw they were locked on the guy in question. Only instead of being annoyed like Addison was, Shelly looked like she was making googly eyes at him.

 Huffing out a breath, Addison turned back and tried to pay attention to the upperclassman that was talking about what life would be like at UNO.

Notes: Addison seems unnecessarily annoyed about the guy coming in late. This introduces a negative attitude without giving the reader anything else to connect with. I’m not sure if this is the best first impression of your character.

Verdict: Not Hooked

15. Mainstream

It was as if the world had run out of quirky, charming, and memorable names for grocery stores. And fate gave me this cashiering job, for the sole purpose that when people asked me what I did for a living, I could look down and say, “Well, I was working in software development for a while, but now I work at a grocery store called That Sounds Delicious!” The prospect most definitely did not sound delicious. On second thought, it was probably best that I didn’t mention my last job, because that would give the impression that I had fallen from grace, wherever that was (probably an incredible height), and I didn’t want to stoop that low.

 The worst thing about it all was that I knew I was incredibly lucky to have even gotten the job. I discreetly took a job application from a rack near the front of the store, filled it out, returned it, and got a call three days later to schedule an interview. What’s three days in the life of the unemployed? Nine greasy, unhealthy meals? Three overlong sleeps? One hundred and forty-four episodes of Family Feud? Unfortunately, the call arrived three months after I moved back to my childhood home in Chandler to live with my mom.

 During my That Sounds Delicious! job interview, it couldn’t have been clearer that I was over-qualified for the cashiering position for which I was being considered. And of course, this fact was brought up almost instantly by my under-qualified interviewer.

Notes: While I like the voice, I don’t find the name of the grocery store all that embarrassing so I think the opening hook needs some work. I would keep reading at least for a while because the voice is strong, however I would need this to move into a scene very quickly or else I would lose interest.

Verdict: Hooked

16. MG Mainstream

It all started with a knock at the door.

‘I’ll get it Ceridwen!’

I hate it when my mother calls me by my full name. Who would call their daughter after a Welsh enchantress? I ask you. A scholar of medieval Welsh legends, perhaps? Yep, you got it in one. That’s my mum. She refuses to call me Ceri like Granddad used to call me. When he died two years ago I told my family and friends that from then on I wanted to be called Ceri, in memory of dear gramps. She pretended not to hear. At least I think she pretended. Maybe she’s going deaf. I hadn’t thought of that.

Notes: So much focus on a unique name could make the character seem like a Mary Sue, and it probably isn’t the best place to start the story because it won’t score originality points. To make this work her name is going to need to be clearly tied into an important aspect of her characterization.

Verdict: Not Hooked

17. Romance

Was she doing the right thing? Jess shook her head, irritated that the question kept nagging at her.

 She tried to focus on the cabby’s radio, anything to distract her. “As the royal tour of Australia draws to a close, everyone’s abiding memory will be of Prince George, just nine months old, but already stealing the show from his glamorous parents …” That was cruel. The words faded away as she slid the glass partition back into place.

 Jess leant over the baby sleeping in its car seat and tucked the tiny hand back under the soft pink blanket as the taxi crawled through the London traffic.

“There you go, sweetheart. You don’t have a care in the world, do you?” The sweet scent of the baby powder overwhelmed her. “I know this is the right thing to do, but it doesn’t stop it hurting.” How would she cope when this little girl was nine months old and no longer a part of her life? She sniffed, determined not to give in to the emotions that threatened to spill over. “I need to think about what’s best for your future, not mine. And you belong with your daddy, not me.”

Notes: Because no connection has been established between Jess and the reader, the scene feels more melodramatic than captivating. It’s too early in the story to include a clip from the news as readers will most likely just skip past it to get to the point.

Verdict: Not Hooked

18. Literary

I’ve given up on happiness. If that’s too strong, then let’s say that we’ve separated. Is this a permanent separation? I don’t know.

 The relationship had become too demanding and ill-defined. We’re still cordial, though. I’m sure that it will be more or less pleasant to encounter one another from time to time. But we’ll try to maintain a safe distance, both physically and emotionally.

 Keep in mind that I hold no hard feelings toward happiness. I trust that it feels the same toward me, not that that really matters. It just doesn’t work as a union. We’re too different, at least at this stage in our existence.

 The strange, and perhaps beautiful, thing about happiness is that doesn’t require some kind of ceremony or legal action to join with it. It’s as easy as declaring, ‘I’m happy.’ Never mind if it’s usually accompanied by or attached to some contrived reasons. It’s still an identity that as easy to don as slipping on a coat.

Notes: The first line can easily come across as angst ridden in a negative way. I like the dark humor in parting ways with happiness, but the discussion of the subject goes on for too long without moving on to a new point or interesting scene.

Verdict: Not Hooked

19. Mainstream

“How is the pain, on a scale of one to ten?”

Its a stupid question. First of all, everybody will have a different idea of what a ten is. And a nine, and an eight, and so on.

 Second, there is no such thing as uttering the word ‘ten’ when the pain is that high. If you have the strength and the presence of mind to say anything. If you manage to utter one word through the screams and gnashing teeth, it better be a fucking “nine”. If it was a ten you wouldn’t be able to speak. The twisted grimace, the rigid body, the shaking, sweat, tears and shrieks, will say it all. “Its a goddamn ten! Stop asking stupid questions and help me.”

The shards of glass sticking out of my stomach should have been another dead giveaway . And the twisted, smouldering piles of cars around me. I writhed and groaned as my muscles contracted completely out of my control, moving the glass around and tearing at my insides.

 The man in blue knelt down in front of me. “What happened?”

Another stupid question.

 I tried to stay still, to stop the pain, my breath coming out in shallow gasps.

 The man put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t move around too much”

Great advice.

 I couldn’t focus on his face. I could barely focus on anything. The world was a swirling haze.

 A set of rapid footsteps pounded in my ear, vibrating through the pavement like a mini tremor.

Notes: I like the voice, but I’m not a big fan of the initial complaints of the pain scale. The second complaint doesn’t really make sense since ten would still be on the scale even if you couldn’t articulate it. I like the idea but not the execution. What really caught my attention was the sense that she has been in pain enough to seem like an authority on the pain scale, but after reading on I think that might be an accidental implication rather than an accurate or intentional one.

Verdict: Not Hooked

 20. Fantasy

Isaac laid awake staring into the abyss of his sleeping quarters. Schuyler slept soundly beside him. She was warm compared to the concrete wall on his left. His fingers glided over the cold smooth surface searching for the roughness of the knicks he carved into the wall. Each one represented one earth day. That much closer to the day when her name would appear on the list. He didn’t know who would be sent to kill her.

 The red light above his door flashed on throwing the room into a foggy red glow that alternated between darkness and red fog. The warning beacon pumped on and off like a heart beat. Not that he knew what a heartbeat felt like anymore.

 Schuyler stirred beside him, the light woke her.

 “We’ve got a jumper,” she said wide eyed as she rolled out of bed and jerked her chin toward the light.

 Isaac cringed, he hated these ones. Unlike Schuyler who existed for the adrenaline that came with jumpers. He could see the excitement radiating from her as she grabbed her clothes off the floor.

 “You coming?” She asked, her voice muffled as she pulled her shirt over her head. Schuyler was halfway to the door jumping into her pants before Isaac could answer.

 “I’ll stick to the list,” he said, turning back to the wall, another day closer.

 “Your loss,” she said as she opened the door and disappeared down the corridor.

 Schuyler was a classic poacher. Every time the red light went off she go topside to get another soul for the reapers to collect.

Notes: I really like the concept. This is definitely an idea I would enjoy reading about. The opening doesn’t quite have the “protagonist waking up” trope, but it’s close enough that I’d consider changing it to stand out and avoid any connection with the trope. I think the premise is going to keep people reading and hopefully Isaac becomes more active and his problem is introduced rather soon.

Verdict: 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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6 thoughts on ““I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume #7

  1. Bjorn Schievers says:

    #3 Ellen is always so spot on with her comments. Wow. Even though a parkour is a letdown after that first line it’s still enjoyable to read. Good luck finetuning it!
    #4 On the one hand I’m very curious what opposite humans are, but on the other hand I’m worried it will be the typical YA thing I’ve seen before. So I hope opposite humans are something quite unique.
    #6 I don’t know how to say this. It didn’t see a story yet, but I could picture it and there was a certain atmosphere, so I am curious how you will improve this.
    #8 Even though it needs work I enjoyed reading that.
    #9 I’m intrigued. I want to know what comes next.
    #14 It’s difficult to connect with Addison because she doesn’t come across as likable.
    #15 Wow. I was definitely entertained by this. Well done.
    #18 I kinda like the humor, you definitely set a tone there.
    #20 This was really good and drew me into the storyworld.

  2. radiateyourlight says:

    You are amazing Ellen. Your feedback and dedication are very much appreciated.

    One possible suggestion: maybe it would be helpful and encouraging if you had three categories: not hooked, hooked, and not quite hooked.

    It seems like there are several you almost like. I think it might help people feel less despair if you occasionally say “not quite hooked.” When that’s really true to say, of course.

    Anyhow, just an idea! Grateful to have stumbled upon your excellent work

  3. David says:

    I wrote number 15 and after I submitted my opening, I was positive that it was terrible and needed to be completely re-written. But I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Thanks for your feedback about the first paragraph and the name of the grocery store, which was something I’ve been on the fence about for a while. And, fortunately, the next paragraph is a line of dialogue that is part of the interview scene, so that’s the start of the action.

    Anyway, thank you for this workshop, Ellen, and all the work you’ve put into it. It’s nice getting suggestions and feedback from someone smart like you.

    • Hades-uftg Tartarus says:

      I don’t think it’s terrible at all. I was quite intrigued by it and I’d also read on. I do agree with Ellen that the name of the shop isn’t that embarrassing and that this opening needs to move into a scene quickly or you lose the reader’s interest, at least this reader.
      The opening paragraph is interesting, but then you go into infodumping. A little bit of info dumping is okay, but this drags a bit too much for my taste. Is the interview plot-relevant? Is the story about this job? If it is, then you can just try to impart this info later on in dialogue or inner monologue or something less intrusive.
      I also felt that the MC is a snob, looking down on a job and carrying on about his/her self-importance. I hope your MC redeems him/herself and learns some humility at some point. Looking down on a job means lookind down on the people who perform those jobs. I find this off putting.

  4. Anonymous says:

    No, it wasn’t an accident that my character seems to be an expert on pain. But maybe it needs to be better articulated?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Regarding submission 18, I see your point about the discussion going on too long. However, I’m very encouraged by how the parting with happiness captured your attention and the mood it established.

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