“I Stopped Reading When…” Editor Critiques – Volume #9

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 Romance

 The room is dimly lit and reeks of hospital-grade disinfectant. If only it would erase the scent of blood from my nose. I’m not sure that’ll ever go away.

 Evie’s family is sitting all around in uncomfortable- looking chairs, staring at me as my vision blurs. Their faces and expressions all swim together until my gaze lands on the one person I thought I might never see again.

 The only light in the room shines from above her bed, casting her features in an ironic sort of spotlight. She lies absolutely still in the middle of the sterile white sheets. My immediate urge to go to her and touch her, to see her breathing, is halted when her Papou stands in front of me, enveloping me in a bone crushing hug.

“Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved our precious Eva. We are eternally in your debt.”

Funny, I don’t feel like I did anything. I’ve never been more of a failure in my entire goddamn life.

 Papou releases me. Evie’s mom steps into his place, wrapping her arms tightly around my waist. Much like Evie, the top of her head only comes up to the middle of my chest. That comparison sends sickening heat racing across my skin. She lets me go a second before my rising body temperate becomes unbearable.

 The closer I get to Evie, the more I shake. She’s alive, yeah, but she looks absolutely broken. Her face is turned towards me, highlighting every injury visible above her thin hospital gown.

Notes: This kept my attention throughout. Though you start on an emotional moment, it’s not overdone with sobbing, crying, or melodrama. The voice is very clearly YA, which is great. I assume you’re going to clarify the character’s problem very soon.

Verdict: Hooked

2. YA Fantasy

Zondry’s hands gripped and tore at pine leaves attached to bushes as she looked over her shoulder. Her chest was heaving, her lungs empty, and her eyes bloodshot. She tore through the last of the forest that surrounded the edges on the outskirts of Dragon’s Eye. Mahri was far behind, her already tattered top had gotten caught on a branch as they ran through the thin width forest that rimmed the deserts and beaches. “Go! Run!” Mahri yelled as three black cloaked figures followed by three more and a pack of dogs emerged from the shrubs.

Notes: Opening with a character running is very common, especially in fantasy, so it doesn’t help you to stand out. I don’t think enough originality or voice is present to hook the reader.

Verdict: Not Hooked

3. Romance

The roof was leaking again. Which was just great. Just perfect. Poppy couldn’t fathom how that could be the case after the four times she’d had her brother patch it up. The last time he’d done it, he’d said, “Only an act of God could get rain through this stuff.”

Apparently God did not want Poppy to finish repairs on this barn.

 She sighed, shifting the bucket a little with the toe of her boot. Ella had said she’d drive out to help, but Poppy had declined. There was only so much two incapable twenty-two-year-old girls could do with a leaky barn roof. And anyway, Ella hated driving in the rain, so no way was she going to be driving through a downpour of this magnitude. Poppy alone it was.

 She probably should have called her brother by now, but he was in the city for the weekend working on another job, so she didn’t want to bother him. Her father was another option, but he already doubted her ability to fix up an old, dilapidated barn. He’d probably show up and then spend the whole time lecturing her on why this was not an ideal hobby for a fresh college grad. A fresh female college grad was always what he meant, but never said.

Notes: I like the voice but I started to get bored during the fourth paragraph. I need more of a reason to be invested in this hole in the barn roof. I assume Ella is just a friend of Poppy’s, but it’s not clear.

Verdict: Not Hooked

4. YA Science Fiction

There were no witnesses, just the night, her and this thing beyond her comprehension. Anna thought he was a man, a man in trouble. He was stood under the lamplight in the centre of an old stone bridge, staring into the darkness as shallow water rushed below him. She was in the car, it was her usual route home but she’d stayed a few hours later in the office, when she saw him up ahead of her.

 There was a part of her brain that told her to keep going, to drive a little quicker, but the louder part of her brain, the part that always got her into trouble, ordered her to stop and check he was OK. She wasn’t far past the scene when she slowed down. What if tomorrow morning the news reported the suicide of a man jumping off this bridge? Her conscience was already too heavy.

 She pulled over. She turned off the engine and took a deep, calming breath. She couldn’t see his face in her rearview mirror; she couldn’t predict what would happen there that night. With alarm bells ringing in the back of her head, she opened the car door and stepped out into the chill air. Keys dangling nervously in her hand, she approached the man with cautious steps.

 ‘Hello…?’

 He didn’t acknowledge her. He hadn’t moved a muscle since she first saw him. That bold, virtuous part of her mind baulked and her thumping heart started to win in a battle of fight or flight.

Notes: This kept my attention throughout. I really like the classic horror (almost urban legend-like) opening without falling into overly cliché language or tropes. The last sentence of the first paragraph is quite awkward to read. My only substantial concern is that this doesn’t seem like YA. I would read on.

Verdict: Hooked

5. YA Fantasy

It wasn’t until halfway through the day that Kieran realized he was being followed.

 The knowledge itself was not nearly as alarming as the slow way it came to him. For somebody who was a professional at hiding, Kieran should have noticed the eyes on his back hours ago. Days, even, if they’d been watching him that long.

 He’d been in this town for nearly three months now. Too long, but after two years on the run he’d needed just a moment to feel the ground beneath his feet. He should have made tracks weeks ago, but it’d been a long time since there’d been signs of anything and Kieran had, he supposed, gotten careless.

 Evidently that had been a mistake.

 He was sitting at a little table in the shade of the college’s student union, heart in his throat and his roommate Morgan beside him, completely unaware of the way Kieran had frozen solid and lost his ability to breathe.

 Across the quad a student laughed, loud and sudden, and Kieran flinched before he could help himself.

 Morgan looked up from her textbook, a pen in one hand and another behind her ear, and frowned at him. “What?”

 “Nothing,” Kieran said hastily. There really wasn’t an innocuous way to ask ‘do you feel the eyes on your back too’ so he said nothing instead.

“You’re awfully jumpy all of a sudden,” Morgan said. “Pale, too. Are you going to be alright for your next class?”

Notes: I find the wording of the second paragraph awkward. Kieran doesn’t know how long he’s been watched so how does he know he should have noticed the eyes hours ago? This doesn’t make sense to me. If he’s in college, then this isn’t YA. The writing is strong overall, but I’m on the fence about whether I’d keep reading because there isn’t anything in this opening that strikes me as particularly unique.

Verdict: Not Hooked

6. Thriller

If I knock on this door I honestly believe that he’s going to kill me. Not figuratively. Not the cute “he’s going to kill me” I hear other women use when they go shopping. He’s literally going to end my life.

 I don’t really remember the walk from the bus stop. I’m really not sure if that was due to the alcohol or the fear. Usually one cancels the other out — or tries to anyway — but not this time. I could feel them both coursing through my body and my head. Especially my head. I just stood there for a bit, staring at the door. Even in my current state I knew what I wanted to do, or thought I did anyway. I just needed to raise my hand up and knock, then there’s no going back. I’d be free.

 I knocked.

 I closed my eyes and felt that goofy grin get a little bigger. I kept them closed for a bit and breathed in deep, taking in the Georgia air. I’d miss that smell.

 The door started making noises. It’s tumblers clicking and clacking as it unlocked. Last chance, the little voice whispered in the back of my head. You can still run. Running always works.

“No it doesn’t. I’m done running,” I told it.

“That’s great honey,” came an amused voice from the doorway. “Because you’re gonna have a hard time running, passed out on my doorstep like that.”

I forced my eyes back open and found myself looking up into the very pretty, and currently bemused, face of my best friend. The expression on her face made me laugh, which only made my head spin a little faster. I took a few deep breaths to get things to hold a bit more still, and tried to push my unruly hair out of my face.

Notes: This is a bit hard to follow. She’s afraid she’s going to die, but then she’s laughing at her friend. The tone seems scattered. The first paragraph is in present tense but the narrative doesn’t return to present tense so that’s a bit confusing.

Verdict: Not Hooked

7. Science Fiction

 Tap, tap, tap, *click*.

 Maria tapped the toe of her black combat boot against the metal frame surrounding her ship’s thruster control pedals. A small boot knife sprung loose and retracted with each click. She had short dark hair and dark brown eyes and sat alone in the pilot seat of a small red ship orbiting above the far side of the Moon.

 Tap, tap, tap, *click*.

 She peered out of the cockpit window at one of the Moon’s more prominent craters, Daedalus, where the largest Interplanetary Trade Bureau research facility was embedded. The facility was completely invisible from so far away, but Maria stared impatiently at the crater anyway.

Notes: The description of Maria feels a bit awkwardly inserted into the first paragraph. It seems as if there is no particular reason to begin the novel at this point since Maria isn’t doing anything of interest and no problem is introduced.

Verdict: Not Hooked

8. YA Fantasy

Your history begins with your great-grandfather and a myth.

 At the time, I believed it to be only a myth. It took me several years to believe that there are truths in myths.

 Chapter 1 “The Secret Moments of the Forest”

The spiders and their webs should’ve been a clue that the forest was trying to tell her something.

 Normally, spiders didn’t bother Vivian. In fact, whenever she walked through the forest that surrounded her family’s bahay kubo, their hut, she actually did not see very many of them. But today, the weathered acacia trees and the squat manobo palms supported intricate silky nets with hairy brown spiders crouched off the center, waiting. When she came across five, she didn’t think much of it. Ten was quite a bit, but still, not a cause for concern. Now, there were so many blocked paths, they caused Vivian’s frustration to simmer. She would have noticed that only certain parts of the forest paths were blocked, but Vivian woke this morning with a sudden need to be outside that clouded her other senses.

 Once when she was younger, her grandfather Apo Ysip was teaching her how to find the pressure points in the foot to relieve headaches, her attention had been diverted to the forest and Apo had reprimanded her.

 She had felt a sharp jab at the sole of her foot. Vivian’s eyes had darted away from the modest window of their bahay kubo to Apo.

Notes: The voice doesn’t really seem like YA. The first section before the first chapter is very clunky and doesn’t seem needed. The chapter itself is much better and kept my interest throughout. I’m not sure if the story about her grandfather continues after this excerpt because it seems irrelevant as currently written. I would keep reading because the voice (after the first section) is strong.

Verdict: Hooked

9. Mainstream

Annie waited patiently while her tour guide showed her how she was supposed to, as he put it, “Avoid a lawsuit by actually filing stuff”. There was a lot of work to be done here Annie thought with a sigh, while her guide proceeded to tell her how one of the nurses had accidentally filed a patient as being dead, which had resulted in a most, according to him, amusing row between the patient in question and the guys who had come to wheel him to the morgue. Annie smiled and nodded at appropriate intervals trying to look as if she was actually listening intently. She looked at the shoes of the middle-aged man standing there laughing at his own joke. They were nice shoes. Really nice in fact. They were dress shoes, real leather by the looks of them, maybe not terribly expensive, but even so, nice shoes. A lot nicer than the ridiculously wide pants he was wearing. His shirt was old fashioned and his tie even worse. Everything but the shoes screamed of bad taste. Had he picked out all of it himself as a set? Then where did the shoes fit in? The man who Annie by the heart of her couldn’t remember the name of, offered her a cup of coffee which she took. Smiling and nodding, smiling and nodding. She took a sip and was pleasantly surprised. It was good, not great, but good. Eventually the guide stopped talking and looked at Annie expectantly, as if he was waiting for her to say something.

Notes: I think you’re overdoing the “stream of consciousness” style and the result is that there is no clear purpose, conflict, or emotion behind this opening. The reader is given nothing to connect to, and there is too much lingering on details that seem irrelevant (like the shoes).

Verdict: Not Hooked

10. Mainstream

Whenever people feel the need to ask me what I do for a living, I normally just shrug my shoulders and prepare for the look of pity in their eyes when I tell them that I am a writer.

 Not that I’ve actually been a writer for all this time to be fair; in the past, this was all a lie–in fact, I have very little shame to admit that there was once a window of time spanning over fifty years where the only reason why I told people that I was a member of the profession was to avoid elaborating on the subject altogether. Trust me, nothing shuts down a conversation about career goals and the future as thoroughly and as effectively as when you’re being asked about whether you have any projects in the pipeline to look out for, only to beat around the bush as if you have nothing to say.

Notes: The attitude of the narrator is a bit off putting to me. The writing is strong, but there isn’t enough here to connect to because it’s all telling without conveying an interesting or unique premise.

Verdict: Not Hooked

11. Literary

Deborah looked at her garden, the dripping garden of a writer. The rain lasted all night and all morning, in the privet hedge blackbirds hid, their orange beaks moving the leaves. Sometimes one flew to the birdhouse, searching for food, a futile undertaking. Those little rascals became too dependent on her. They seemed to stay over in her garden, between the rough beams and stones, the remaining beds with summer flowers, almost choked by weeds. On the overgrown terrace stood a cast iron garden table and two benches, turned green. Ignored for months because of the noise in her head and her life.

Notes: The descriptions of the garden aren’t particularly interesting and don’t reveal anything clear about Deborah until the last line. I don’t think this is the strongest place to start the story.

Verdict: Not Hooked

12. MG Literary

At the beginning of the summer, Forrestine thought she knew what it meant to love a place. She certainly knew how to leave a place (thanks Mom and Dad for all the practice). But now she was feeling settled in Chicago with two years of roots growing down nicely, and there were no signs that any of it would end.

 That is, until the day Grandpa called from the county jail of Beaver Plunk, TN.

 The call came on a normal, semi-chaotic night for the McCowat family. Forrestine, and her younger brother Chump, lounged around in their prep school clothes (blue polo shirts and khaki slacks), in their living room. They were busy not doing their homework.

 Ugh, who even gives homework with a month before summer break? Forrestine thought. Oh yeah, my school does.

 Chump laid belly-down on the rug with his tablet, flailing his pale legs and moaning dramatically every time he missed a point in his game. Mom, rushing around frantically to not be late for her fancy dinner, limped by with one high heel on her foot and the other under her arm, while also trying to zip the back of her sequined dress. Whenever Mom came through Chump quickly flipped his screen from his game back to math.

 Mom stopped and squinted her eyes. “Chump, I’m going down town so I won’t be home until late, but I will be checking that math in the morning, and it better be done or else.”

Notes: I like the voice, and I think the telling at the beginning of the scene is okay so long as it is clearly followed up with an explanation that ties it to the rest of the scene. The main thing I would change is that I would put more focus on Forrestine rather than Chump and/or I would introduce the conflict sooner. It’s generally a good idea (especially in middle grade) to align the reader with the protagonist as quickly as possible.

Verdict: Not Hooked

13. YA Mainstream

“Excuse me, miss” the voice behind me makes me pause from opening key mailbox I was just about to check. I almost want to avoid the polite Excuse me for a moment, thinking that it’s one of my noisy neighbors-again trying to get information on what might be going on at home.

 I take in a deep breath and decide to be social for now and I turn around to see a middle aged man who is defiantly not one of my neighbors. He’s wearing a button down dress shirt and slacks, “Yes”? I say hesitantly. I tend to try to avoid people that I don’t know, you never know what they could do to you, or maybe I’ve been watching too many crime shows that I’m starting to become paranoid. But it is the middle of the day and I am at the community mailbox, I’m pretty sure that he wont try and do anything to me?

Notes: There are quite a few typos and incorrect word choices. I think this could be an interesting place to start the story though. Rather than focusing on her paranoia, I would focus on why she doesn’t want people to know what’s going on at home and/or why she seems to want to avoid social interaction. This would show more about her character and avoid her seeming unnecessarily paranoid.

Verdict: Not Hooked

14. Fantasy

Spft. Spft. A spitefully cold car sat in the parking lot of Dopplegangers’ Watering Hole. A cracked passenger window allowed for the snow that melted to trickle stealthily into the door frame. Spft; spft, it pooled on the leather interior. The owner had changed out of her winter coat and boots in the back seat before stammering already tipsy, into the tiny Westside bar that sat between a family owned grocer and some old duplexes. So cold and quiet was the night, that no sound could compete with the excitement coming from sports fans inside the bar – it could be heard blocks away. Alas as the sun crowned a dawning horizon; the lone silver car stood frozen in the parking lot; its owner and her companion had left it behind for an after-hours tryst back at her place, a ranch only a few miles away.

Notes: I don’t think you’re starting at the right point because there isn’t much of a hook. “Spft. Spft.” Is confusing at the beginning of the scene. I thought perhaps it was the sound of the car stalling. I would cut the first sound to avoid confusion.

Verdict: Not Hooked

15. YA Fantasy

Few things can distract me from a science book. Unfortunately, the voice of Ferdy Fields is one of them.

“Dagnee!” Coming through his nose, Ferdy’s voice squeaks like a cornered hedgehog. Why did Darse have to send Ferdy?

“Here,” I call, swinging down from my evergreen perch. I spot Ferdy running in the wrong direction, away from me, panting and clutching his side. I’m tempted to let him keep running right off the edge of the cliff.

 The best way to describe Ferdy is an adolescent nineteen year old. He tops my height by two heads but probably weighs about the same. I always wonder how he scrunches those grasshopper legs into the claustrophobic mine tunnels. A thick topping of dirty blond hair and plentiful eyebrows make him look like a gangly sheepdog. He’s about as smart as a sheepdog too.

“Here, Ferdy.” I finally catch his attention by waving my book above my head. He scrunches his face at my book, obviously disapproving of my hobbies, but says nothing about it. Thank goodness.

“You know,” he says, walking towards me, “I ran half a mile to find you. Looked at your house first, but you weren’t there. Knocked for five minutes. You should really stay in one place if you’re going to be the mine mechanic.”

 “What’s the problem?” I ask.

“Elevator quit working on the western wing. Jammed or something. You know, you should check up on your little machines more often. Seven men are trapped down there.”

Notes: The first sentence strikes me more as middle grade than young adult which led me to imagine the protagonist as much younger than I think he actually is. I like the description of Ferdy and I’m intrigued by the issue at the mine. The voice is strong and I would keep reading.

Verdict: Hooked

16. YA Fantasy

Attempting to get off the ground I was met with swift gusts of wind crashing into me. I stay pressing against the earth wondering what the villagers would do next, my clothes barely hung on by a few tattered pieces. Standing outside close by, the military guests were silent and attentive refusing to come to my rescue, watching my neighbors pelt me with the elements. I grip at the mud forming around me, willing it to become my shield, but found no refuge there. As I accept the possibility of death at the hands of friends, my view changes, two guards hold me securely, my feet lightly brushing the ground, one would have been enough to handle me. I look at the two guards their face full of disgust and hatred, I knew they weren’t there to help me. At the age of twelve, I was being taken out of the village for an unknown reason.

Notes: I found this a bit hard to follow. After reading it twice, I think the villagers have supernatural powers and are sending the wind after him, but I would explain their powers first or immediately following the description of the wind or else the reader might get lost. I assume this is just a prologue or introduction and the protagonist will be older in the rest of the novel. It might be better to start with him/her as a teen.

Verdict: Not Hooked

17. Mystery

If I was a nail-biter, I’d have chewed through the quick of all ten. Carl, pedantic as he was, liked the sound of his own voice. I found it humorless as a textbook on sperm whales. Today, my lawyer was clad in a sports coat and jeans. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him in a suit and I doubt this was due to lack of affordability. I imagine his lackadaisical approach to lawyering and life was too lax for formal attire.

 My eyes aimed at the manila envelope lying straight-angled on the desk. A terse and tedious gathering of questions leaked through the barricade of Valium I’d prepped for our meeting. A crowd-turned-riot threatened violence on my thoughts, thinning the threshold between impatience and blown-out anger.

Notes: The first few lines read like YA to me. The inclusion of both “lackadaisical” and “lax” reads a bit awkward in the last sentence of the first paragraph. “My eyes aimed” is unnecessary. “A crowd-turned-riot threatened violence on my thoughts” is a bit awkward and it takes a second for the reader to comprehend what you mean. I think the writing has promise but isn’t quite there yet.

Verdict: Not Hooked

18. Horror

Unknown to the soldiers of the 132nd armored division, as they ran to their vehicles and left Ducksburg headed East, two people were arriving in a hatchback from the West. The twenty blocks of houses, trees, churches and small businesses hid the two groups from each other quite well. The soldiers weren’t likely to stop their exit if they did know the small car was pulling into town. The occupants of the car probably would not know how to process the sudden sight of five heavy military vehicles rolling up on them in the quiet streets of a tiny Minnesotan town like Ducksburg. In the soldiers’ minds, there was no time for a lot of anything except stomping on the gas and heading anywhere else… fast.

 The car pulled up to a curb outside a drug store, in a slanted parking space you see more often when a town’s population dips below a few thousand. The driver’s door eased open and shiny white running shoes touched down on the worn pavement. A young man of around twenty got out, stood his full height and stretched that long drive was over for now stretch. His passenger also got out, but she chose to pull down her pant legs and touch her toes in three bouncing finger taps. Their eyes met across the car’s roof and they grinned in a road weary way.

“Soda?” Taylor asked.

“Please,” she said as she turned to the drug store’s facade. The signs across the front surface, windows and door…

Notes: The writing is definitely strong. I would need a conflict to be introduced right away as well as more information about the main characters in order for my interest to be maintained for much longer.

Verdict: Hooked

19. YA Historical

Vincent Whitport made a noise as daylight slapped him across the face. The morning it would do this on was not easy to predict, but Vincent knew that it was almost without fail in the summer, giving him yet another incentive to hate the season.

Notes: I can’t follow what you’re trying to articulate in the second sentence. It’s very confusing.

Verdict: Not Hooked

20. Mystery

$13.56.

 That’s what I owed that lady they found behind the public library this morning. People say she was part of that tour group that poured into Mae South last Saturday. But she wasn’t. Christian and I were there eating at our corner table. The sun had warmed up our spots nicely. Chris chose the fried chicken, greens and mac and cheese. I opted for my usual, chicken salad on croissant with a pink lemonade and plans for Red Velvet Cake for dessert.

 Chris was going on about the majority of his class bombing his test. Then the news on the television over the bar cycled back to the search for Noah King, now in its third week. It put Chris in a mood. So I was half-listening. That is why I noticed her. She sat at the end of the counter studying the menu. Tall and blonde with high cheekbones, she hovered just over that line where stunning and wholesome met. But you could tell she was actively going for the latter. Chris would give her a second look if and when he saw her. I couldn’t compete with my coarse, graying hair and square-rimmed glasses even if I wanted to. I lost track of her when Leland spotted us and sauntered over.

Notes: The opening few sentences are a bit confusing. I initially thought Mae South was a location, but after reading this a couple times, I think maybe it’s the name of the restaurant. This needs to be clarified. Is the woman he sees at the bar the woman who owes him money? If so, I would make that clearer.

Verdict: Not Hooked

What Do You Think?

More last submissions will be posted tomorrow.

Workshop #2 submissions are open! So make sure to submit your opening by 8am EST Monday July 18th if you want to participate.

 

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

  1. honoria plum says:

    I enjoyed this opportunity to understand how the vetting process works — very helpful indeed. I voted for them all — I have my reasons, but my reply ended up being seven or eight paragraphs so I’ll write a piece in response .

  2. Jessica Breakwell says:

    Mine is entry 4. I agree that I should have put Adult. Thank you for the feedback.

    I’ve enjoyed reading and voting on these each day. This set was my favourite (and not just because I was happy because mine was in the mix, ha).

    • johnhansendk says:

      Congrats – that’s a great opening!

      In the second sentence you use “he” even though the man has, so far, only be called a thing. Just a tiny, bit confusing, and using “it” instead of “he” may work well too.

      • Jessica Breakwell says:

        Thanks very much!

        When I initially wrote it, in the very first line I had called it ‘it’ in italics, but because the submission form stripped formatting I rewrote that. But you’re right that I then didn’t catch that I called it ‘he’ in the second sentence. Thank you for your feedback!

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