Publishers, 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?
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“I Stopped Reading When…”
It was late afternoon and the sun was about to set. Dorian wished for a red sunset. Red as blood, to match his mood. He’d just entered Bosson, an unimportant town, most travelers would agree. Dorian wasn’t a traveler and he wouldn’t agree. It was the place where he had grown up and where his family had been killed ten summers ago. For him, Bosson represented everything that had been wrong since then. Everything he was going to make right again.
Walking through the streets, he was surprised how little had changed. He walked by what used to be his favorite tavern and considered entering. What harm could one beer do? He’d had that same thought for the past ten years. Well, if he was honest, he’d had that same thought since forever. What harm would one beer do? He knew the answer now. One beer would distract him from doing what he wanted to do. Distract him enough to postpone the bloody business to the next day. This was the one lesson he had learned over and over again since the incident.
So this time… This time he moved on.
He wasn’t sure if Shiran’s gambling house was still in the same place or even if Shiran still owned the gambling business in Bosson. The gambling business Shiran had stolen from his family. It used to be located in an alley just off market square, in a store that doubled as a butcher’s shop.
Notes: I like the writing style and I feel like this is a story I could really enjoy. That said, I recommend giving the reader a bit of a stronger sense of Dorian’s personality. I would also reduce the amount of telling a little bit and/or add in some sensory information to pull the reader into the moment. Shiran is introduced rather abruptly and it’s not clear what causes Dorian to start thinking about him.
I woke slowly, tried to open my eyes, but the glaring fluorescent light forced them closed again. My head felt fuzzy, slow, disorientated like waking from a nap that began in daylight and ended after dark. Had I been asleep all day? I didn’t remember falling asleep at all, but I was in bed…. not my bed though. I tried to open my eyes again but the light over the bed… shit… there was never a light over my bed….
Notes: Opening with a character waking up in an unexpected location is fairly common (this is the second one I’ve seen out of the first 22 opening pages) so it’s not the best hook. The speculation about whether the narrator fell asleep seems a bit unnecessary or maybe even tedious (mainly because I’ve seen it dozens of times). I would probably skip to when the narrator opens his/her eyes and get to the real meat/hook.
He was well hidden behind a large bush next to the bicycle path.
“She’s late!” He whispered to himself.
A few minutes later a young woman appeared around the corner jogging toward him.
He chuckled, “For a second there I thought she might be late to her own funeral.”
The air was crisp and it smelled like every flower around her was ready to bloom. Janis loved jogging this path because it took her through so many the trees in the forest.
Notes: Characters talking to themselves is a pet peeve of mine. It’s an easy way to convey thoughts but it can feel lazy and unnatural. The jump from focusing on the male to focusing on the female is head hopping and it’s very jarring.
Detective Raine Corbin did the math. It had been 8 years, 9 months, and 15 days since Officer Tad Westcott had been killed in the line of duty: 8 years, 9 months, and 15 days of silence. Even though Raine Corbin had transferred out of state to another police force two years later, she’d always known she’d come back and this case would be waiting for her.
Raine checked her phone. Over an hour passed by since she’d taken a seat at the booth furthest from the entrance. Releasing her agitation with a sigh, she was forced to admit the tip she’d received wasn’t time specific. A retired sergeant gave her a call out of the blue to say that there was someone who would be useful to talk to there that night at St. Michael’s. The pub, St. Michael’s, Raine didn’t know of any parish called St. Michael’s in Seattle.
Notes: I like the first few lines, but the last line of the first paragraph had my brain spinning trying to comprehend what “two years later” meant. I would cut/move/alter this line to help out the readers who aren’t that good with quickly understanding numbers. Referring to her as “Raine Corbin” twice in the first paragraph is a little awkward. I would refer to her as just “Raine” the second time. Why is she “forced to admit” that the tip isn’t time specific? Where is the force coming from? The idea that St. Michael’s could refer to a parish instead of a pub didn’t even cross my mind so the last sentence read a bit awkwardly and seems unnecessary.
- Science Fiction
The pharmacist didn’t know the young woman pointing the gun at him should have died before she was two, before she was three, before four and five and all the way up to her present age of twenty-two. Nor, in that moment did he know that one day she might be the celestial savior of the human race.
The pharmacist took a breath that required effort to swallow as he kept his eyes fixed on the woman dressed in black jeans and a black tattered loose knit sweater. Her sweat drenched hands were too young to be clamping a pistol. She trembled under buzzing fluorescent lights as she pointed the primitive weapon at a man who had no business being on either side of a gun.
Notes: I don’t understand the first line. Do you mean the woman should have died at each of those ages? It’s confusing since “before two” negates the need for “before three” (and so on). “Celestial savior of the human race” veers into melodramatic and almost seems like you’re being ironic. “Black tattered loose knit sweater” is too much description for one article of clothing. I like some elements of your voice, but it’s not all the way there yet.
The moon called to him from her throne, a dark disc rising stealthily in the twilight sky, and Lucas Randolph dared not answer.
He couldn’t remember the last time he sensed the moon rise without cringing like a newborn pup. As a werewolf born in her silver magic, he should have by rights rejoiced under the moonlight.
Hell, as a werewolf, he should have by rights been free to hunt and run in the spruce and fir forests of his youth. Instead, he sat hunched over on a backless barstool, doing his best Rodin imitation in the middle of a white room dominated by a one-way mirror on one wall. The floor beneath him gleamed, the freshly scrubbed white tiles reflecting his grim expression in the crooked geometry of a Picasso masterpiece. Above him, a pyramid-shaped skylight granted him a view of the darkening sky, a view he refused to partake in.
Notes: At times the writing seems as if it’s trying a little too hard. I would cut “from her throne” out of the first line to make it simpler and snappier. I would also cut “in the crooked geometry of a Picasso masterpiece.” “A view he refused to partake in” doesn’t tell the reader anything about why he won’t look and also seems unnecessarily fancily worded. I’m not sure where Lucas is. He’s sitting on a barstool but he doesn’t seem to be in a bar. You might refer to the stool as simply a “stool” to prevent any confusion.
Rays of moonlight illumed a candescence upon the silver-steel armor of the battle-born mage army skirmishing the distant steppes of Rolinoar, the continent upon which these Elven Tribes thrived.
At point, the archmage’s staff emitted flashes of sparked white-light that signaled the rhythmic cadences of the army’s step with each stentorian pound.
Notes: The first sentence is too long and very likely to overwhelm readers. You’re overwriting. “Rays of moonlight illumed a candescence upon the silver-steel armor” can be reduced to simply “The moon glinted off the steel armor.” Simplicity is better than complexity in 95% of situations.
- Science Fiction
Artyom Kazei adjusted his uniform one last time, then raised his fist to knock on his commanding officer’s door. He rapped twice, firmly and in quick succession, just like she’d ordered him to. A moment later, the door opened.
“Ah, Fleet Inspector Kazei. Come in.” Commander Emmeline Anderson, his superior, sat behind her desk. He stepped through the door and it automatically swished shut behind him. It had always bothered him that she didn’t pronounce his last name correctly—the last syllable was supposed to rhyme with day—but then again, most people who didn’t speak Russian couldn’t say it right. His first language was Russian. He’d learned the Lingua, the universal language based on English, later in life, hence his slight accent. Commander Anderson obviously spoke the Lingua and probably no other language—certainly not Russian.
Notes: The first paragraph seems a little wordy to me. “Raised his fist to knock” is unnecessary, you can just describe him knocking. I would give Commander Anderson something more to do rather than just sit behind her desk because it makes that sentence feel like a throwaway to introduce her name. I would wait before describing how to pronounce Kazei because the explanation takes up a lot of precious first-page space without getting the reader excited about the story. Theoretically Artyom is nervous (because he adjusted his suit) but you’re not really giving the reader any point of emotional connection.
- Science Fiction
“Zara, what are you doing?” Sandor asked.
“Just enjoying the view,” Zara replied.
“I’ll have to take your word for it. From where I’m sitting Titan is ugly as sin. Now, hurry up. You know I don’t like you being out there any longer than is necessary,” Sandor said.
Notes: If you open with dialogue, then the dialogue needs to say something interesting or exciting to hook the reader. This is pretty mundane dialogue (and a little wooden) that would probably be trimmed out during editing even if it occurred later in the story.
“Be invisible to all,” I whispered. To any who heard these words that is all they were…just words. To me, they were a shield. A reminder of the dangers surrounding non-human, even more so if like me, you had elven blood running through your veins. Since the Great Purge, the hatred and mistrust between elves and humans ran deeper than any dwarfish mine dwelling.
Notes: The second sentence is awkward because without context almost anything said by anyone is “just words.” It’s also confusing because later the narrator says the words are a shield and a reminder of the dangers “even more so if like me, you had elven blood” which means (presumably) they aren’t “just words” to “any who heard” because some people could have elven blood. I would try to show the hatred and mistrust between elves and humans and then explain where it comes from instead of relying exclusively on telling.
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11 thoughts on “10 First Page Critiques: Scifi, Fantasy, Horror Edition [Novel Boot Camp]”
I not only agree with your comments on the above openings, but it also served as an eye-opener on my work. Although mine is not one of the above, it’s obvious I need to return and do an unlimited amount of rewriting. I can’t wait for the bludgeoning I’m going to get from you.
I’m glad it helped to read the feedback! There’s nothing like seeing other people’s mistakes to inspire changes of your own!
The first one is my favourite since I am a sucker for a good old revenge/ out for blood type of story especially in a fantasy setting. The thing is with those kind of stories you got to have that little something special that sets you apart from all those other stories out there. I agree with Ellen in the case of letting Dorians (love the name by the way I’m a big fan of Dorian Gray) personality shine a little more.
Loving Novel Boot Camp Please do a segment on under writing!
this is super helpful. Rereading the paragraphs after reading your notes, brings to light what you’re saying. Some things I wouldn’t have picked out but definitely make for a better sentence. I will take your notes and use them in my own writing.
1. The first five sentences repeat and contradict each other in a playful way that works for me. I like the writing but would like to see more of what the town looks like through Dorian’s changed eyes. By the last paragraph the repetition does become noticeable when the word ‘gambling’ is used three times in two sentences. But I really like the aspect of after 10 years the city has not changed and the character see it differently because they have.
2. Waking up in an unfamiliar place is a great way to instil a sense of unease, as a bed is often warm, comfortable, inviting, and safe, and you’ve turned it on its head. That said, because waking up in a strange place IS a great way to start a story, it has been done enough to become something of a cliche. Maybe starting a bit after the protagonist has woken up and a bit closer to their first action would avoid the cliche, but still make it an effective part of the story?
3. Good on you for taking on an omniscient viewpoint. They can be tricky; on one hand you get an insight into every character, on the other you can’t really hold information back, so I would have expected to be told who ‘he’ is, and why he’s hiding. (Also, “late to his/her own funeral” is a fairly common expression, but I don’t know if this is a medieval or modern fantasy story)
4. Love the first paragraph and the 8 months of silence intrigues me. Is it silence from internal affairs, the people looking into the murder, or was Tad a bit of a loud mouth? Or maybe all three. The second paragraph sets a good scene, but the information could be tightened up on further edits.
5. The celestial saviour foreknowledge gives this SciFi intro a fantasy feel (which I love), almost like a prophecy. It makes me wonder if the threat to her life at ages 2, 3, 4, and so on, was due to illness (hence the pharmacy), conspiracy against her future savour status which brought her to her lowest point (hence the robbery), or both. The long sentences and descriptions in the second paragraph make the scene feel like it’s in slow-motion.Shorter sentences and fewer descriptions will make it feel more anxious to the reader.
6. It’s unclear if Lucas is a man holding off the change, or if he is in some sort of hybrid-wolf form sitting on the stool like a man. And I don’t know if he’s in that room under his own will, or if he is a prisoner in an observatory, but I would definitely keep reading to find out.
7. I sense this story is a grand, Tolkien-esque epic. Not sure if is intended to be backstory or the main conflict. If this is backstory, might be best saved for a prologue, if its the main story I’d like to see this from the protagonist’s point of view. How do they see and feel about the army? Also watch for similarly spelt words close together (candescence and cadences).
8. Artyom’s nervousness is well executed on the first line, but I don’t know if he’s there for disciplinary reasons, or to receive mission details, a promotion, etc. Rather than tell us there’s a language barrier (or accent barrier), having Artyom react to the mispronunciation of his name while talking to the captain will do double duty of progressing the story and giving us character insight/backstory.
9. I don’t know where “out there” is (floating in space, on a deck with a view, etc). The dialogue tells us these characters have had this conversation before, but it reads like they don’t really know each other. I rarely start talking to a friend by saying their name, and if Sandor has had a similar conversation with Zara in the past he shouldn’t need to ask what she’s doing.
10. I’m not sure why, but the first line reads like the protagonist is casting an invisibility spell, then it’s stated to be just a mantra to go unnoticed. I love the backstory and world building you’re hinting at, but would like to see more of the protagonist and their relationship to the world in the first page. You can show how the world treats a half-elf by showing us how people treat the protagonist.
I got hooked into fantasy story number four regarding the detective. The introduction was nicely layed out. Returning to deal with the partner’s death set the tone well enough to make me wonder what happened and how Raine will preceded.
The last few lines seemed rushed, like the author was trying to pack a lot of information into the fewest lines possibly blue. The last line was awkward. Kind of like it was shoved in.
How could one best replace what a character was saying to themselves to describe their mood? Should it be replaced with a narrator’s discussion? Or could be brought out in dialog after the incident when they explain to a third party how she started the day perhaps?
I have been looking forward to your boot camp since I first heard about it last year.
This is so useful! Even just reading a handful of openings has given me a sense of what editors/ publishers go through every day. No, they don’t have time to invest, hoping to get to the good part later, and neither do your readers. It also made it much easier to recognize trends/ cliches.
I’m glad I read last year’s submissions too, those already showed me so much of what I had to change.
Sometimes I find it hard to nail down why something is bothering me, so it’s nice to have a professional opinion. And I totally agree with the feedback.
Ellen, you’re awesome for doing this Boot camp, thank you!
Ellen, thank you for your comments. I really appreciate that you take time to do this. Super helpful.
Thanks so much for your insight, Ellen! I’ve watched many of your older novel boot camp videos, but this is my first time getting the chance to participate. I’m really looking forward to it.