10 First Page Critiques: Middle Grade 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. Comedy

The green prickly bush stabbed me in the back of the hand like a sharpened #2 pencil entering the flesh of the idiot kid assigned to the seat in front of me. The difference being that this wasn’t funny. I yanked my arm back and shoved my dirty knuckles in my mouth. Even while I sucked on my hand like a baby, I was hard core and everyone knew it too. No other fourth grader could get away with slobbering on their fingers except for me. In fact no one in the whole school probably. Who am I? Zachariah Faddious Thompson, but everybody calls me Zach. I may only be nine, but I run things at Harper Elementary. Need proof? No problem.

One time I made fun of JoAnne Felton for walking funny because she had crutches.

Notes: The simile in the first sentence compares being stabbed by a prickly bush to being stabbed by a pencil. I don’t recommend using similes that compare two almost identical things (I’m actually going to have a video about similes during week three of Novel Boot Camp). I don’t believe a nine-year-old would use the word “flesh.” The voice seems a bit mean spirited which isn’t necessarily a problem (I’m assuming he has a character arc to become less bullying), but finding it funny to stab another “idiot” kid is maybe a bit too aggressive and bragging about teasing a kid with crutches is likely to make adults (the book gatekeepers) uncomfortable. I think the voice has potential but I would tone things down a bit to make it more palatable. Nine is too young for MG.

  1. Science Fiction

The tent billowed against Imp’s cheek. She pulled the sleeping bag tight around her neck, her other hand grasped the comfort of the steel torch, cold and hard against her palm. She bolted upright, wondering why her muscles trembled with tension, why her jaw clamped her teeth so hard.

Was it the wind in the trees? Or could it be… something else? She waited, ears tuned in. This is stupid. Relax, she thought. No one’s going to find us.

She heard the neighing of the horses. Then a high-pitched, whinnying scream cut through the other sounds. She recognized the cry of her horse. He’d been jumpy ever since the incident last year.

When she scrambled from the sleeping bag, cold, damp air chilled her skin, raising goose bumps like Braille. She pulled the jumper she used as a pillow over her pajamas, its shapeless mass, a comfort, an old friend.

Notes: I like that you’re starting with some tension. Your problem is almost exclusively that you’re relying on very standard descriptions that readers have seen dozens or hundreds of times: “tent billowed,” “pulled the sleeping bag tight around her neck,” “bolted upright,” “cut through the other sounds,” “chilled her skin,” “goosebumps like braille,” “an old friend.” Familiar phrases actually reduce visualization and comprehension so opt for more unique descriptions.

  1. Fantasy

The police man took off his hat when he came in. Like it wasn’t already obvious he’d come to tell us bad news. I wanted to take his hat and throw it at him. But I didn’t, obviously. I just leaned on the kitchen table, probably looking a bit stupid and felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. In my defence, Mum didn’t say anything either. In fact, she didn’t even try to wipe the tears that were streaming down her face.

“Presumed dead. What does that even mean? That a year is too long to be looking for someone’s Dad so they’ll just presume he’s dead?”

Benjamin looked at me, his close-together eyes filled with concern.

Notes: It’s rare that starting with a scene this dramatic is effective. It takes a lot of skill to pull off. You’d probably do better to start with a less dramatic scene and/or start with the “hook” right away: “It was the last day of school when the cops said they were going to stop looking for my dad.” It’s not clear who’s speaking the first line of dialogue. It’s not clear who Benjamin is.

  1. Fantasy

“What would you think about a trip to Iceland this summer? They offered me a temporary teaching position at Reykjavik University!”

Berta looked up from her bowl of Lucky Charms and squinted at her mom in disbelief.
“What are you asking me, Ann? Are you asking me to go to Iceland with you? This summer?” Berta always addressed her mom by her first name when she was displeased with her. Her mother chose to ignore it this time.

“Yes, Dear, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You and me. Iceland. This summer. What do you think?”

 Notes: The opening line is a bit awkward because the reader has no context. It also places the focus on the mom rather than the child, which isn’t ideal for MG. Though you explain that she calls her mother “Ann” after the dialogue, it creates some initial confusion. Berta’s dialogue is a bit awkward. I’m sure she’s being sarcastic but it comes across as unnatural since the answers to her questions are obvious. By the time I reached the line “Yes, Dear” I felt fairly confident that the dialogue is not strong enough.

  1. Fantasy

The wind bit into Hamish’s bones like a hungry wildcat, but he let his cloak flap open and slid one foot forward. Ice creaked. His breath juddered into the mist rolling down from the moor.

How could this be midsummer? He might’ve been small enough to crawl into a mouse-hole, but if this was midsummer, he was a mouse. Tonight should have been music till dawn, and acorn cups of raspberry juice, and floating on his back in a sun-warmed rockpool.

Well, here was the rockpool. And he’d rather eat rat than end up floating in it. He scraped snow away with his boot and a seashell gleamed in the ice, cold-white in the moonlight. If he crashed through, is that how the clan would find him? Frozen like an ant in amber?

Why’d I think this was a good idea?

‘Well done,’ said Toby, lounging on the rocks with the clan’s Book of Lore cradled in his lap. ‘And now you move the other foot. It’s called walking.’

Notes: The first line is too complicated (I’m not a fan of starting with similes either, but that’s personal opinion). There’s a lot of description in the first paragraph but I still don’t understand what Hamish is doing. Is he walking across ice? Is he taking his first step onto ice? Does he let his cloak flap open to let his leg move forward or is he simply careless about the cold? I thought maybe he literally was going to turn into a mouse at midsummer (this is fantasy after all) and I stumbled on that sentence. I like the idea of the frozen pool in summer, but I want more description of the visuals. I see a lot of potential here, but there are a bit too many issues with clarity.

  1. Fantasy

Peeu hacked and coughed trying to clear his throat and take in fresh air, but he was trapped in a foggy stench. Ava caught him off guard, by quickly throwing herself into a handstand, saturating him. The smell was so noxious it made him gag.

She didn’t get her nickname Herfume because she smelled like roses.

This is how Ava responded after Peeu hit her with a tagball so hard, it left an imprint of muddy dimples right in the middle of her dress. Her favorite, perfectly fitting, pleated blue dress. She was pissed!

Notes: I have no idea what’s going on in the first paragraph. “This is how Ava responded after Peeu hit her with a tagball” is very awkward wording and requires too much processing to understand. It’s not clear who the main character is or who the reader is meant to connect to. “Pissed” seems way beyond the age group this story is targeted for.

  1. Science Fiction

Grace has been crying for five days straight. Five days. That’s exactly how many days Molly’s been missing.

I never paid much attention to Molly, she’s a little white mop of a dog. A little yappy, and a lot annoying. Grace has been pitiful since Molly disappeared. If I were being honest, the whole thing is a mystery. Molly was always locked up safe in the house when everyone was gone.

Notes: I assumed Grace was the main character so the “I” in the second paragraph was a bit jarring. What does Molly or Grace have to do with the narrator? The mystery could be compelling but it feels too distant from the narrator/protagonist to be important to the reader.

  1. Fantasy

“What do you thinks out there?” whispered Mr. Crankle, peering out to sea through his spyglass. “Stranger things yet, I’m sure,” replied Mrs. Crankle, leaning back in her deck chair gazing out to sea, “the only thing I’ve seen so far … are a couple of gypsy mermaids swim by selling shell earnings, I bought a pair.”

Notes: Starting with adult characters is always a huge risk in MG. I don’t recommend it. “Thinks” should be “think is” or “think’s.” The last line of dialogue is clunky and I had to read it three times to understand it. I don’t think you’re starting the story at the right place.

  1. Fantasy

A bluejay flew overhead and settled in a tree at the edge of the forest some fifty feet ahead. It called at the Mark continuously as if accusing him of trespassing. The boy was annoyed at the bird, but realized there was nothing he could do to stop the racket. He surveyed the area. The forest was thick, but not dark. It was too early in the year for there to be many leaves on the trees, and those that had arrived were the light green of early spring rather than the deep, rich green of high summer. As a result the shadows within the forest were not deep ones, and the boy considered going into the trees to find something to eat. The meadow before the tree line was covered with the faded and broken remains of last year’s grasses and feral grain.

Notes: Typo in the second sentence: “the Mark.” The third sentence about the boy being annoyed by the bird doesn’t add value since he doesn’t do anything and there’s no clear emotional effect. The descriptions are boring without any clear sense of tension, emotion, or conflict to prop them up.

  1. Horror

Crane held on as his dad took a sharp right and skidded to a stop. He stared through the front windshield at the two twelve foot tall, wrought iron gates blocking their way. Ben killed the engine, jumped out of the car and went straight for the gate latch. It opened.

“Dad, what are you doin’,” Crane yelled from the backseat, “thats a graveyard in there.” The sixteen-year-old opened his door but didn’t get out.

Notes: Switching from “his dad” to “Ben” is awkward/jarring. Focus on Crane and his feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc. I don’t feel connected to him. Sixteen is way too old for MG.

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?

Don’t miss this week’s Novel Boot Camp videos:

Reasons Writing Writing(1)

Want to connect with other Novel Boot Camp Participants?


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3 thoughts on “10 First Page Critiques: Middle Grade Edition [Novel Boot Camp]

  1. Amy says:

    These critiques are so useful – thank you! It’s too easy to forget that readers don’t know the story like the writer does, and might need more details to make sense of things.

    I enjoyed the voice in 1, though I found the idea of laughing at a girl with crutches a little off-putting. I enjoyed the sense of tension in 2 and would be interested to see how the sci-fi elements come into play.

    Ellen, what are your thoughts on beginning with a line or paragraph in omniscient POV and then moving into close 3rd for the rest of the story?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank You Ellen for critiquing my work. (#6). I’ve made several attempts to write a great beginning for my story. It seemed awkward to me also, but I was not sure. I am also able to learn from the other critiques. I do see that my protagonist does not stand out.

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