First Page Critiques: Adult Fantasy, SciFi, Horror [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. Fantasy

London 1567

A smothering darkness spread through the cavities of Anne’s chest. It matched the clouds stretching across the sky above her. She stumbled to her feet clutching her stomach.

Angry voices rumbled in the distance. She narrowed her eyes, squinting. She huffed. It wasn’t fair — God must hate her. Why else would He make her sight so poor? — Her sister, Mary, could see perfectly well.

Notes: The first sentence doesn’t give a clear indication of emotion or sensation. In the third sentence, I’m not sure if she’s clutching her stomach in pain or fear or something else. The first paragraph isn’t clear enough to pull the reader into the scene. “Narrowed her eyes” and “squinting” are basically the same thing so including both is redundant. What’s her point in thinking about her sister’s perfect eyesight? Is the point that they are genetically similar (so she should have good eyes too) or that her sister is better liked by God?

  1. Fantasy

Shuffling the ice in his drink, Scrin Zaragoza considered the world outside his palace window, once again recounting that it was, in fact, not his own. It never had been. Across the distant hills, a great many carriages rolled towards the palace’s stone wall, bringing with them lords and ladies who would grovel at his feet. But they were not his people. They never would be.

Notes: You’re not giving the reader anything unique to latch onto. “Distant hills,” “stone wall,” “lords and ladies” – this is all interchangeable with hundreds of other fantasy worlds. Start with the emotional hook or a description that’s unique to your world. Opinions on this obviously vary, but the name Scrin Zaragoza seems like it’s trying too hard to be fantasy-esque and it could make it more difficult to suspend disbelief.

  1. Horror

As far as bad wedding omens went, Mercedes couldn’t imagine a worse one. She tried to step outside to have a cigarette alone. All she wanted was a few minutes away from all the fussing, the hysterics, the gossip and the obnoxious outfits. Unfortunately her younger sister spotted her as she was creeping away.

“If you’re going for a smoke,” Chantal said. “I hope you’ve got two on you.”

Mercedes sighed. “Yes, there’re plenty to go around. Come on, then, quietly.”

 

Notes: You mention the bad omen which could be an effective hook, but you don’t show or tell what the omen is. The first sentence also seems disconnected from the rest of the opening paragraph. She seems concerned with getting away from the hysterics rather than concerned with the omen, so the reader promptly forgets about it (which you don’t want if the omen is your hook). I would rather you pull the reader into the scene rather than relying on telling for the entire first paragraph. The dialogue isn’t giving me a clear sense of how Mercedes feels about her sister. Are they commiserating (they both need to smoke) or is Chantal butting in? If she wants to be alone, why doesn’t she just say so? I think the dialogue could be used to better effect.

  1. Science Fiction

She pulled me away.

“Help me Ezra, don’t let them take me.”

It knows my name.

“Please.”

Liv ran cold her once she saw the boy. “The ceremony,” she said. “We should go.”

A child snuck up on them from behind. Ezra turned to a face no more than 12.

Notes: This is extremely disorienting. I’m not sure how many different characters are present. I assumed the “she” was Ezra, but then Liv is described so I’m assuming Ezra is someone else? Then there’s “the boy” (Ezra?) and then “a child.” Then the narration jumps to focus on Ezra (what happened to Liv?), and at this point I was way too confused to want to continue.

  1. Science Fiction

Jacob opened his eyes to a bluish haze that seemed to pulsate and swirl. He tried to focus on something, anything, but there were just pinpoints of blue dancing around him. He became dizzy, hot and flush. He squeezed his eyes shut and let the darkness envelop him.

It was then that he first felt the back of his head rage in pain. It was as though it lay upon a jagged rock. He moved to touch his head, but he couldn’t move. His arms were bound. They were wrenched behind his back, and he was sprawled backwards upon them.

Notes: The first paragraph has too much repetition in sentence structure (the sentences start with: Jacob, He, He, He). The second paragraph has two sentences in a row starting with “it.” I appreciate that you’re starting with action, but there isn’t any emotional connection to what’s going on. It’s also fairly common to start with a character opening their eyes or becoming conscious. I would maybe start a bit later and focus tighter on his feelings other than physical pain.

  1. Science Fiction

The media called them the Zombie Sleepwalkers. Others called them the Waking Dead, despite the fact that they were neither zombie nor dead.

It was on social media that it first began to show up. One of the early signs of an emerging health crisis is a sharp rise in searches for a particular set of symptoms. Suddenly people were googling sleepwalking cures, sleepwalking causes, insomnia, sleep apnea, disturbed sleep in general.

Notes: You have some good ideas, but you’re relying entirely on telling and the voice isn’t stylish enough to do this effectively. If the novel continues like this, I would strengthen your narrative voice and make stronger decisions: Do you want to be funny? Scary? Authoritative? Journalistic? If the story doesn’t continue like this, you’d probably do better to introduce a character and pull the reader into a scene before describing the symptoms.

  1. Fantasy

Life’s not a video game, but sometimes I wished I could hit the reset button to start over. If you didn’t like the outcome, reboot. ‘Choose your destiny’. Perhaps college students had the luxury of having four years to try and figure out who they were. But I guess I wasted three of those years so far. I found myself cramming for the first time in my life. I’d always welcomed challenges, always mapped them out in my mind – strategized alternate routes and solutions to find a way out. But now, I’d hit a dead end. So much to deal with, so much to consider. Graduate from college, then medical school, get married, have kids, live happily ever after. And then die happy. My life…my future…it should’ve all been my decision, right? Sure.

Notes: The sentences feel very disjointed from each other and choppy which makes this hard to follow. The first sentence doesn’t work for me. We all know life isn’t a video game, focus on the character instead: Sometimes I wish life were a video game, hit the reset button and start over. “Choose your destiny” is very different from a “reboot.” I thought he was referring to college students externally because “Perhaps college students had the luxury” gives the impression that the narrator doesn’t have the luxury. I don’t understand the connections between cramming for the first time, welcoming challenges, hitting a dead end, and having a lot of life decisions to consider. They’re all vaguely connected subjects, but you’re not connecting the dots for the reader in a logical way.

  1. Science Fiction

So I die at the end.

I know, I know – I’m giving away the ending, and you’re not supposed to do that. But after all, everyone dies, right? At the end?Anyways, you need to know. You need to know because you’re going to die too.

It’s a lie, you see. All of it. I’m going to die for it. And you will too.

I am Hypothesis 17, and I hope you find this log in time to save yourself. Because what they’ve done to me, they’re going to do to you too. And the next kid. And the next. Like they’ve done to all the kids before us.

Hypothesis 16 died only two years after becoming the Scientist. That’s right – he died in 2232, not 2275 like they told us. Everything we saw of him for those forty three years was just holos and AI.

Big. Giant. Lies.

They’re not going to keep me around after I die. I don’t think I’m even going to make it through the Experiments. And I certainly won’t be the next Scientist. Hopefully, neither will you.

I’m going to expose them, expose their lies, expose their crimes. And if I can’t do that, then I’m going to burn it all down. This girl will burn the Institute down. To the ground.

 

Notes: The first line reminds me too much of John Dies at the End (other readers might not care). The repetition of “too” at the end of the second and third paragraphs reads a bit clunky to me. “This girl” seems like an addition to sneak the gender in early and is a little awkward in my opinion. The text reads male and I’m guessing you’ve gotten that feedback before (thus the “this girl” line). All that said, I enjoyed the voice and the idea. I’m not a big fan of self-aware “this is a book” type narration, but that’s more personal opinion. I do think this seems like YA rather than adult fiction but I’m assuming there’s a reason you’re marking this story as adult.

  1. Science Fiction

“I am an asshole.”
In the back of a cab, on the side of a street, in the middle of the night, in Las Vegas, I am staring at someone else’s engagement ring. It’s supposed to be mine. It’s about to become anyone’s.
My cabbie, who’s waiting to get paid, half-turns his head. “What is that sir?”
“I am an asshole.” Reassuring myself.
“Uh, sir – we are here?”
“Do you think people mate for life?”
Cabbie’s eyes roll a little, but I wait for an answer.
“Mate? Like animals?”
“Yeah. Some animals, anyway.”
“I do not know. My wife and I, we meet in Bangladesh, arranged marriage. I am with her for life now. I must say though, I am very happy.” He looks at me in the rearview. “Did you hear me say we have arrived?”
“I never used to believe in true love, you know. Still not sure if I do. There’s something about her, though. Keeps me coming back.”
“You saying this reminds me of my cousin. He is married, three beautiful children. One day he goes for a manicure. Then he comes home, packs and leaves for Alaska.”
“What has Alaska got to do with a manicure?”
“The manicurist has family there. They leave together. He says ‘there is something about her’. I do not get it.” He presses a button on the meter. “We can stay, but I have to charge you, sir.”

 

Notes: I like the quick pace because it sucks the reader in. The second paragraph is a tad confusing. The engagement ring is described as “someone else’s” and then “supposed to be mine.” I understand that the narrator is going to sell the ring, but I’m confused about whether it was someone else’s, then theirs, then sold to someone else? If so, does that mean the narrator gave the ring to a partner who gave it back? I think you could be clearer to save the reader some trouble here. When the conversation turned to true love my attention definitely started to falter. This isn’t really what I would expect from science fiction, however I think it’s okay if the pace picks up soon. I definitely wouldn’t carry this conversation on for much longer unless it gets to the meat of the story/scene.

  1. Fantasy

No one would ever know what happened to cause them to leave originally, but we certainly learned what it took to bring them back. The scientists always said climate change would have unpredictable effects on our environment, and warned about the potential for species level extinctions. I don’t think they ever considered Humanity might be one of them.

The meteorologists were predicting a nasty winter this time. I think they do that just to give a seasonal scare to everyone, maybe increase snow shovel sales. Everyone already knows how bad winter can be, we are used to it. I guess you could call it more of a tradition, and of course more evidence for climate change having more, and more impact.

 

Notes: I’m not totally sure how the first line ties in with the rest of the paragraph. Unless the narrator is not human, then “them” probably doesn’t refer to humans which is what the rest of the paragraph is about. The last sentence of the first paragraph doesn’t seem accurate. Lots of people have speculated that humans could go extinct due to global warming. The real hook is that humans in your story are going extinct a lot faster than expected. The second paragraph has some tense confusion: “meterologists were predicting” (past tense) “this time” (present tense). There’s too much telling and it isn’t sucking the reader into the story.  I would start with a scene instead of relying completely on telling.

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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