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?
If you don’t know what Novel Boot Camp is, check out the full schedule here!
“I Stopped Reading When…”
Peter Camden did not expect to find two police cars parked outside his home when he returned from an evening on the town with three old college friends.
“You can let me out here,” he told the Uber driver as they pulled into the small private parking area.
He stepped out of the car and looked at the one-hundred-and-eighty-something-year-old carriage house that had been turned into six condominiums: three downstairs and two upstairs.
Notes: The first sentence doesn’t work well as a hook because it’s pretty rare that anyone expects a police car to be outside of their home so the sentence isn’t saying much. The age and description of the condominiums isn’t of interest before you’ve hooked the reader with a strong emotion or problem. You might be starting too early. Perhaps it would be stronger to start with him inside with the cops.
I jolted out of my dream when I heard the phone ring. A pleasant dream I immediately forgot. Ryan was snoring softly when I reached over and grabbed his phone, noting the call was tagged with a New York area code. I pushed him awake. He mumbled and moaned a few times before he opened his eyes and peered at me. The phone stopped ringing.
Notes: Waking up is an easy place to start the story but it’s also a trope. You’d do better to start the story at a different point. Don’t mention the dream if it isn’t of value. The dream is taking up precious space in your first paragraph without pulling its weight. We’ve all read/seen dozens of scenes of a couple woken up in the night by a phone call so there’s just not enough of a hook here.
Jane’s eyes remained fixed on the flickering flame. Her fingers passing through it from side to side. *As smooth as silk*, she thought, absorbed by the intense flame’s beauty. Far from the outside world, from her ordinary life.
The sound of the old church bells, dragged her back into the real world. In one puff, she blew out the small candle leaning on the oak table by the window. The smoke curling up into the air brought the smell of darkness.
Notes: “Absorbed by the intense flame’s beauty” teeters towards melodramatic. These first two paragraph don’t give the reader any sense of what’s going on but they also don’t raise interesting questions to coax the reader into continuing to read. What is “the smell of darkness”? I think you’re trying too hard and simpler descriptions and more information would create a stronger hook.
Today is four weeks before the first boy goes missing, and as I’m sitting in my p-doc’s office on a hot September day in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, I’m thankfully unaware.
“Zack, I’m surprised you can get clinically depressed on your mood stabilizer,” says my shrink. She’s young compared to the twelve or thirteen p-docs I’ve seen in my life. About thirty-five, I guess. My age. She’s a sharp dresser with a fitted blouse tucked into a tight pencil skirt and no hoes, just strap-on heels. She’s a gym rat; I can tell by the seriously toned legs. Even biking doesn’t quite get them that defined, unless you’re a pro on your bike twenty hours a week. I know. I eschew the gym and with all of my biking and climbing, I’m super solid, way strong, but my legs don’t look as good as hers.
Notes: The present tense in the first sentence threw my brain into a spin. I thought at first maybe this was an omniscient first-person narrator who knows the future but then it’s revealed that the narrator is unaware of the impending disappearances. I think this is a bit too awkward to be worth the hook. The description of the doctor’s legs and how he knows she’s a gym rat goes on about three sentences too long.
When I passed out last night, I gave myself a fifty-fifty chance of waking up again. The sunlight slanting through the blinds let me know fate’s coin flip had come up heads. This time.
I turned my head slowly, careful to keep the rest of my body still. My neck twisted and strained as I tried to see what lay behind me.
Even before I laid eyes on him, his hot breath caressed my ear. Pinpricks invaded my arms.
I endured five breaths before turning back and easing out of bed. My husband slept on, undisturbed. Another coin flip won. I should find a casino.
Notes: I have no idea what’s going on but not in a good way. Why did she think she wouldn’t wake up? Why is she surprised to see her own husband? The second paragraph gives the impression something creepy or surprising is behind her but it turns out the situation is rather mundane. Opening with the character waking up is risky and I think there are probably better places to start your story.
I let my cursor go back and forth between yes and no, wondering why there isn’t a third option. At least Facebook events let you tick the maybe box. But this RSVP form is merciless.
“I don’t know about this, Jules,” I say, clasping my mobile phone between my ear and my shoulder. “Do we really have to go to this alumni event?”
“Of course we do, Lexie. It’s been eight years since we saw these people and I’m dying to know what happened to them.”
I laugh. “You just want to know if Keith is still single, but I really doubt he is.”
“He could be divorced.”
“Maybe. But I’m not going to this event just to drool over some guy’s ass. I have better things to do than that.”
Notes: There’s no information about who these characters are or why I should care about their conversation. The character names feel awkwardly inserted into the dialogue. Starting with dialogue only works if the conversation is inherently interesting or intriguing, but this isn’t hinting towards a conflict I find compelling.
Their guy was sitting at one of the small tables by the wall, black sweater, his finger prodding a phone screen. He may lose that finger.
As Matt stepped out of the chilly morning and into the coffee bar it took all his will not to look over at where he was sitting, an amateur move. Like a bad poker player that can’t stop checking his cards once he gets dealt that great hand.
And this was luck, they’d hunted this guy for over a year now and came up empty. Then three weeks in Chicago on a different assignment he shows up. The myth, the face on a pinboard, a grainy CCTV image in Dallas, a plane ticket stub into Logan. Now so easy, way too good to pass up.
Notes: I like the idea of the line “He may lose that finger” but in actuality it’s a bit clunky and slowed me down. I would replace “he” (second paragraph, first sentence) with “the man” or “their guy” to improve flow and clarity. “That great hand” reads awkwardly and “a great hand” would be smoother. In the third paragraph the tense gets a little messy. “Came up empty” should be “had come up empty.” “He shows up” could be for stylistic effect but since it’s following another tense issue, it reads awkwardly. I don’t think you need the last line of the third paragraph. I’m picking a lot at the language because I think your main issue is clunky writing, but they’re all easy fixes.
The volatile mixture ignited. The flash of flame withered at the opening burst, sputtered, then blossomed. Tongues of orange light flickered and cast an eerie glow upon the transparent walls. Choking black smoke filled the room.
Jessamine Rhodes took one step toward the exit as the fire quickly spread to the body sprawled upon the concrete floor.
Thick, acrid smell of burnt plastic and vegetation eclipsed the stench of flammable liquids. Scorching heat radiated throughout the structure.
Notes: I think you’re probably a strong writer, but you’re using the same sentence structure over and over and it makes for a clunky and awkward read. Every sentence is structured: subject, verb OR adjective, subject, verb. Try to vary things up, use conjunctions, etc.
The first time she saw Johnny Kubo, Koi knew she would kill him.
He’d stumbled out of the Bar Onsen on the Sakaemachi and knocked her mother into a street sign. He blamed her for being in his way, called her a whore.
Koi knew instantly, she just didn’t know how or when.
Last night she followed him for three hours while he shopped for electronics in Denden Town. She wanted to move on him in the noisy crowds but he had too many people around him, other clan members and flirty off-duty hostesses from his boss’s clubs, a flaunting entourage of reputed libertines who demanded discounts at every store in the district.
Notes: The first line caught my interest, but I’m struggling to stay invested in her desire to kill Johnny Kubo. Is she the kind of crazy person to kill someone for a relatively small slight? Or is there more to the story? I’m not feeling her passion, fear, or whatever motivates her to kill him. “Last night” doesn’t tell the reader anything because there is no sense of when “the first time” was that she saw Johnny. These events could be happening just a day apart or forty years apart. Where is Koi now? This opening focuses on two layers of telling about the past. You’d probably have more luck pulling the reader into an immediate scene.
A refugee from Sierra Leone was dead, and I was flying back to Budapest to find out how my brother had ended up being one of three suspects.
It has been twelve years since I had been to Hungary, and at least that many months since I had thought of it. I had no desire to reminisce about the country that had rejected me, and I disliked being reminded of my roots. I resented my brother for dragging me back to our hometown, but also felt a smidgen of self-satisfaction that in a time of trouble – no doubt the worst he had ever been in – I was the first person he thought to turn to. I wondered if our mother knew about this latest piece of bad news about her favorite boy. A slight pang of guilt assured me that I should probably not be the one to tell her.
I looked around, identifying those fellow Lufthansa passengers that were clearly Hungarian. The thin, penciled in eyebrow, black-lined eyes, and deep cleavage gave the peroxide-blonde older lady away. Her companion, who could very well have been her grandson if not for the conspicuous placement of his hands on the upper part of her thigh, wore the unmistakable plush shush-shush pants that never seemed to go out of fashion, and a muscle tee, which would have been a better fit for a man who was more inclined to exercise. There was a young couple, buried so deeply in one last kiss after the other that I wondered if they knew something I did not about the ill fate of this flight.
Notes: This kept my attention throughout. The voice is nice and I like that you provide emotional context (not wanting to go back to the country that rejected him) right away which helps pull the reader in. I think the first line could be shortened. “ended up being one of three suspects” could be changed to “ended up a suspect” or even “ended up one of three suspects.” The first line of the second paragraph should read “it had been” not “it has been.” A mistake that early in the text can really hurt you. I would expect a clear conflict/problem to be introduced within the next couple paragraphs so make sure you don’t dawdle too much in getting to the point.
Need help writing a killer first page?
Check out my video on writing your novel’s opening hook.
Which pages hooked you? Which pages still need work? Why?
Don’t miss this week’s Novel Boot Camp videos:
Want to connect with other Novel Boot Camp Participants?
For more writing tips, follow or subscribe:
3 thoughts on “10 First Page Critiques: Thriller & Mystery Edition [Novel Boot Camp]”
Entry number 10 about the death of a Sierra Leone refugee was the most interesting I want to know how his brother was involved.
The discussion about his fellow passengers was a little confusing.
I thought #1 had potential, given the genre. Following Ellen’s advice, here’s an idea:
Returning from an evening on the town, Peter Camden was disquieted to see two police cars parked outside his home, their spinning lights casting blue and red up and down the entire length of the street. “Let me out here,” he told the Uber driver when they were still half a block away.
I also liked #10. My one suggestion would be to consider using the contraction “I’d” in some places instead of the more formal sounding “I had” — UNLESS the more casual tone is something you want to avoid, in terms of voice, etc.