10 First Page Critiques: Mainstream, Literary, Romance Edition [Novel Boot Camp]

NBClogoPublishers, agents, and readers all make quick decisions about what they want to read. Below are my first impressions of ten 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.

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?

If you don’t know what Novel Boot Camp is, check out the full schedule here!

“I Stopped Reading When…”

  1. Romance

The first time a cute guy discovers your love for pink lacy underwear, you want it to be in a romantic setting, preferably after you’ve already talked at least once and are on a first-name basis with each other, not at the overcrowded airport gate of Oceans Airlines.

A sane person would’ve gotten up as soon as their face hit the very questionable floor of Gate 53B and act like nothing had happened. I, on the other hand, forgot how to even move. From the corner of my eye, I saw a pair of leather shoes inch closer and before I could even make sense of it, a firm hand scooped me up and straightened my skirt in one fluent move.

“That was a quite a fall. Are you okay?” I looked up and saw that the leather shoes belonged to a guy sporting a nonchalant, yet sexy look.

Notes: I like the idea of this awkward Bridget Jones style scenario, but the first sentence seems complicated and convoluted. I think you could make it simpler, snappier, and funnier. I have a bit of trouble understanding how a single hand “scooped” her up (What part of her did he grab?). I’m not sure what a “nonchalant yet sexy look” is like. He sounds concerned rather than nonchalant which makes the description additionally difficult to visualize.

  1. Mainstream

When I was ten years old, my parents told me the story of when they conceived me and retold the same story on my birthdays. They didn’t care the thought of them doing the nasty grossed me out. I guess most parents don’t. I wish I could tell them that story makes me laugh now–minus the details of their sex life, of course.

My Brooklyn-raised mother and California dad met at NYU, and after graduation moved to Escondido, California to start an organic farm.

Notes: The first sentence is clunky. “When I was ten” and then “retold the same story on my birthdays” seems unnecessarily complicated. I would rephrase to something like: “every birthday since I turned ten.” Even with this change, this isn’t much of a hook because it has no clear relevance to her current situation. Launching into her parents’ history isn’t a good idea when the reader has no connection to the narrator, her parents, or the story. Describe what’s happening now.

  1. Romance

“Joey! Ryan! Slow down!”

Amy and Rachel were a few yards down from the summit overlook when the shout coming up the winding path let them know they were no longer alone in this part of the canyon park.

Sage brush and boulders lined what amounted to little more than a goat trail, making it difficult for two people to walk side by side. Though the view of the river valley was awe-inspiring, the lack of amenities like a gift shop or bathroom facilities meant that only a few people were willing to go out of their way to experience this gem, and so they’d had it to themselves since arriving earlier this morning.

Notes: The second paragraph is quite complicated/convoluted when there are definitely simpler ways to convey the same idea. The first names you introduce will automatically seem like major/relevant characters and this means readers are likely to think the dialogue is directed at Amy and Rachel. I had to read this twice to understand that (I think) these are total strangers shouting. Give the reader something to emotionally connect to before describing the trail.

  1. Mainstream

A cascade of blood and water. Penetrating silence. I marvel that the battle has begun, even before the boy emerges from the woman’s womb. The umbilical cord is tied around the tiny neck of my charge. The blue, lifeless infant is pronounced dead at 3:27 pm. Things are going according to plan.

Half a mile away, a servant of whom I am particularly fond, is already on his way. Upon my suggestion, he leaves his soup kitchen to collect holy water and chrism, and proceeds to the community hospital that serves the poorest of Los Angeles. A cavalry of angelic force manages traffic, and the priest arrives in less than three minutes. The security guard, who happens to be a parishioner, allows him to park in emergency parking. If you humans only knew the heavenly orchestration behind the mundane details of your lives.

Notes: The style is ambitious and naturally requires an extra careful amount of editing. I like the last two lines of the first paragraph because they act as a strong hook. I initially thought “I marvel that the battle has begun” referred to labor, but reading it a second time I think you mean a spiritual battle has begun. I thought “a servant” at the beginning of the second paragraph referred to a literal servant. I like the idea but I’m struggling to emotionally connect with what’s happening because there is so much shifting of focus between characters (the woman, the narrator, the priest) and locations. I suggest either sticking to one location (just with the woman giving birth perhaps) or amplifying the narrator’s presence so that he provides the consistent character and structure.

  1. Mainstream

The portraits in the studio depict the four Ziegfrieds that preceded me, all of them young, powerful men sharing the same imposing quality. The way they look down on me, even from a painting, affects me as powerfully as if I was in their presence, it’s almost as if they were judging me. I seldom step into the study for that reason, but this morning, I was compelled to. I had resisted for years to do my portrait, but I’m very close to retiring and appointing a successor, so there’s no way to delay it any further. They were in their 20’s and 30’s when they did their portraits, I’m 76 now, but I’d like to think I still retain those boyish good looks despite my age. Quite a tradition us Ziegfrieds have.

Notes: The initial descriptions gave me the strong impression that the narrator is a young adult who hasn’t come into himself and thus feels intimidated by the portraits, so it was very jarring to find out the narrator is 76. The first three sentences could be condensed. I think you’re driving the point a bit too hard. I’m struggling to find something to connect to in this opening. Why should the reader care if he has his portrait done? I recommend providing a stronger sense of the problem.

  1. Mainstream

In times of crisis, my mother’s advice always lingered in my mind. The old, world mom wisdom that sticks in the back of your mind worse than gum in someone’s hair. Respect your elders. If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your mouth shut. If you’re not on anyone’s shit list, you haven’t done anything worthwhile. She didn’t actually say the last one. A professor told us that in one of my business classes in college. She agreed with it after the fact, so it counted.

Notes: The repetition of “in my mind” in the first two sentences reads clunky. A list of cliché mom sayings isn’t a strong hook. I think you’re starting the story in the wrong place. Pull the reader into a scene instead.

  1. Literary

I needed a break. At least, that was what I wrote on the note I left that I wasn’t sure anyone would find. I wrote, I need a break. I’ll be back. I folded the note in half, twice, and placed it in the center of the kitchen table. Worried it would be somehow displaced despite the lack of persons or pets to disturb it, I placed the salt shaker on top of it. Worried it wouldn’t be noticed by the concerned family member my stubborn heart conjured, I switched on the light directly above the table—a de facto spotlight.

Back then, I still hoped to be noticed by my absentee family. I still thought, given enough time, they would miss me. Back then, my heart was still tender and soft in familial places, hidden and protected through sheer hope . . . and need.

I was twenty-five when I left.

Notes: I like the first paragraph except for the phrasing “my stubborn heart conjured” which seems a little awkward and melodramatic. The second paragraph relies entirely on telling emotions and veers even deeper into melodrama. In my opinion, twenty-five seems quite old for the thought processes and behavior of the narrator. I think eighteen or nineteen would be more believable.

  1. Romance

The funny thing about life—and I don’t mean haha funny—is that those pivotal moments, the moments that change everything in an instant never give you a warning. They hit you with the force of a CAT5 hurricane and most of the time, there’s no heads-up. No blaring sirens to alert you to run for cover and bunker down. No ‘pivotal man’ on TV telling you the life changing forecast. It always hits you on your blind spot. When you least expect and think you have everything figured out. Or in my case, nothing figured out yet and just flip-flopping around and trying to fight the current.

The other funny thing about life is that most of the time, when you get hit with that life changing moment, you don’t even know until it’s too late.

Notes: Opening with broad statements about life typically doesn’t work well because the observations are almost never striking or unique. If a moment changes “everything in an instant” it’s sort of a given that there isn’t any warning. If there was warning, it wouldn’t happen in an instant. I’m not sure what you mean by “pivotal man.” There are a lot of clichés in these opening paragraphs and it’s overshadowing your voice.

  1. Mainstream

Pippa had fallen asleep on a couch that did not belong to her – again.

She lay staring at the popcorn ceiling for a few minutes. A travesty, truly, this popcorn ceiling. As if the apartment wasn’t dated enough with its tiled kitchen counters and creaky windows. Avi could certainly afford better than this once he started to receive his new First Soloist salary, but Pippa had a feeling he’d stay here anyway. He had a thing for “character.”

As if he knew she’d been thinking of him, Avi appeared in the doorway of his bedroom. His long, lean body seemed to fill up the whole space as he propped himself against the doorjamb and sipped his coffee. Another spot where they differed — Avi was a coffee enthusiast, whereas Pippa strictly adhered to a diet of tea. But of course *Avi* could eat or drink whatever he wanted.

“Thanks for letting me crash here,” Pippa said when she decided he wouldn’t speak first. Her mouth felt fuzzy.

Avi shrugged. “Wasn’t much I could do once you passed out right in the middle of episode five.”

“I missed the rest of episode five?”

“Yep. And six.”

Notes: I’m not a fan of opening with a character waking up, but I like the voice enough to overlook that if this is truly the best place to start the story. By the end of the third paragraph I was getting a little antsy for a sense of the point/purpose of the scene. What’s the conflict/problem? What does she want? I like the voice enough to stick around for a bit longer but not much.

  1. Literary

Everything about that first meeting is imprinted on my brain like a series of images burnt onto my retinas, as if all that happened in that brief space of time took place against the background of a blazing sun. But my memory is tricking me: it was night, there was no sun, just the bomb-blast that was her.

It was a Wednesday, February, so even though it was only around seven, it was already dark with that sense of things closing down. When the doorbell rang, Dave and I were half way through our tea: fish pie, home-made, with apple crumble to follow – though with what happened next, we never got as far as pudding.

Most nights, the children would have been at the table with us; I’ve always been a stickler for us eating together, as a family. At fourteen and eleven, Izzy and Joe still haven’t been entirely overtaken by teenage indolence and are as nosy as hell, so they’re generally keen to respond to doorbells.

Notes: I like the idea behind the first sentence but not the execution. It’s too long/clumsy to be a snappy hook. Including both “imprinted on my brain” and “images burnt on my retinas” seems redundant as does “everything about that first meeting” and “all that happened in that brief space of time.” Some reworking is all you need to make that a strong hook. The opening paragraph gives me the vibe that the protagonist is a lot younger than he/she turns out to be. I was thinking 16-22, not old enough to have teenage children. The gender of the protagonist is unclear. I read it initially as a male (the “bomb-blast” being romantic) but then the protagonist mentions Dave so I thought perhaps the protagonist is actually female and Dave is her husband. This could benefit from some clarity.

Need help writing a killer first page?

Check out my video on writing your novel’s opening hook.

Comment Question:

Which pages hooked you? Which pages still need work? Why?

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6 thoughts on “10 First Page Critiques: Mainstream, Literary, Romance Edition [Novel Boot Camp]

  1. Douglas Hazelrigg says:

    I quite liked #9. The writing is concise and it had a nice pace. I agree with Ellen regarding the “waking up ” trope — God knows I’ve used it myself — but I also agree you get away with it here. I disagree with Ellen slightly in that I do sense a bit of conflict brewing here, when Avi implies he’s not entirely happy about Pippa crashing there (although I’d delete the indifferent “shrugged” description). I also thought the coffee vs tea would work better if showed instead of told.

    Stories need a chance to breathe. I am not one who is all that obsessed with “hooking” the reader in the first few sentences (although there should be something interesting within the first few paragraphs), but this interested me and I was quite ready to read on —

  2. Douglas Hazelrigg says:

    For example:

    Avi raised his mug. “I made a pot of coffee, Pip.”

    Pippa sat up and pulled both her hands down across her face. “Do you have any tea?”

    Avi frowned. “You know I don’t drink tea.”

    “I thought you knew I didn’t like coffee.”

    Or something to this effect —

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