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…”
God, he was fit, and he’d had two shaves this week. He’d thought about growing a moustache, except that it was against the school rules, but he could, and then see what they would do about it. The only thing was the other lads banter being that you had to shave it a lot first otherwise it just looked like bum fluff. He certainly didn’t want that hash tag.
Notes: This seems like YA rather than adult. I assumed “God, he was fit” referred to someone other than the main character. I assumed this was first-person POV and the narrator had just seen a super fit guy. This made the next sentence a bit jarring. It’s not clear how “he’d had two shaves this week” relates to “he was fit.” Is the shaving a good thing or a bad thing? As the paragraph goes on, it becomes clearer that this is a teen reflecting on his own developing body, but it’s a bit too confusing in the beginning. I’m not sure this opening has much appeal to adult readers because of the teen speak.
A head peaked in her door. “Happy Birthday, Catie.” Sandy’s smile was so huge it seemed to blot out the rest of her face. “Twenty-one, right?”
Catherine nodded, while slipping her diary behind her back and under her pillow.
“Here.” Sandy moved her hands from behind her back and pushed a box wrapped in paper with twenty-one stamped all over it toward her.
Notes: Unfortunately there just isn’t a hook here. A birthday isn’t a particularly unique or interesting place to start the story. The reader doesn’t know these characters and doesn’t have any reason to be invested in a birthday. Who is Sandy in relation to Catherine? What does the diary have to do with her birthday or her problem, motivation, etc.? I would avoid phrases like “all over it” in third person because it can read as sloppy.
“Pennsy, here’s your noob. Show her the ropes.”
My new boss barks at the man standing next to the forklift. “Pennsy” studies me before he responds to Mr. Smythe, “Yes, sir.”
The boss-man points a finger in my face. “Your only job here is to deliver FQS. Fast-Quality-Safe. There’s no drama on the third shift.” He nods at the man, “He’s in charge,” and walks down the aisle to the operator at the next machine.
My trainer and boss-man designee reaches out a hand, “Penn Greaves.”
Notes: “Pennsy” is awkward as a first word because it’s not a real word. I stumbled over it. My brain got whiplash in the first two paragraphs trying to get oriented to the main character. As a general rule, whatever name you mention first will be assumed to be the protagonist. The protagonist isn’t speaking or receiving the first line of dialogue and that causes the reader to be a bit jarred. “Boss-man” doesn’t seem (in my opinion) like natural speech. “Boss-man designee” is a bit awkward to read. I don’t think you’re starting in the right place and the reader is too distant from the protagonist.
Joseph sat tall in the saddle, the wide brim of his cowboy hat shielding his eyes from the blaze of the morning sun. All the land as far as his eye could see belonged to the Jones family. And it never ceased to take his breath away. It was rich land that had provided an impressive legacy for generations. It stretched before him, displaying spectacular views of the crisp-cool Yellowstone River; fertile farmland that now lay dormant, resting from a bountiful harvest; acres of pasture land for the cattle and horses; the miles of white fence that had replaced the rough cedar posts of yesteryear; the lush forests that harboured trails to explore, and lastly the magnificent mountain peaks that disappeared into fluffy-white clouds – an illusion of perfection
Notes: You’re relying too much on clichés and standard/typical descriptions: “the blaze of the morning sun,” “as far as his eye could see,” “take his breath away,” “stretched before him,” “bountiful harvest,” “lush forests,” “magnificent mountain,” “fluffy white clouds.” Try to put more of your own unique voice and perspective into the writing rather than relying on these expected/standard descriptions.
I suppose that I have always been a little bit different—like how Peter Parker was ‘different’ before becoming Spider Man and completely succumbing to an incredible disease that was inexplicably dealt to him one fateful day.
Notes: For a first sentence this is far too long. It’s likely to scare agents into thinking your writing is always verbose and cluttered. “Completely succumbing” and “incredible disease” and “inexplicably dealt” are all very awkward phrases. “One fateful day” is too cliché. I don’t think you’re starting with the right information. Practically everyone feels “a little bit different” so this doesn’t tell the reader much. This also seems more YA than adult.
Torn at one corner and creased with age, a square white envelope sat in a side pocket of Liam O’Leary’s backpack. He’d had many opportunities over the last few years to post it, even stopped outside a Post Office more than once, but each time he’d stopped himself. This card required hand delivery.
As Liam strolled from Auckland International to Domestic, he recalled the last time he’d seen Vanessa, and frowned. She’d always had an expressive face. Wore the chip on her shoulder for the entire world to see. Liam liked that about her. The raw honesty, the spunk. Someone once said her backbone was fashioned from a stiff bristle brush and for some reason that analogy had wedged in his mind over the years. He’d been on the receiving end of that brush more times than he cared to remember.
Liam had struggled to sleep on the flight from LA, despite the business class seat his company had paid for. The lack of oxygen in the cabin added to an already throbbing headache, and the apprehension of returning home didn’t help. He looked out the oval window as they made their descent. The day was clear and fine, and he could see across the wheaten yellow plains to the peninsula two hundred miles northeast. The district had seen no rain to speak of in months, and Liam had never seen it so dry.
Notes: This is a strong opening. The letter creates an immediate hook and is a great example of raising a question the reader really wants the answer to. This is also a good example of how telling can be wrapped into the mystery/question so that the reader stays invested even when you’re explaining about Liam’s history with Vanessa. You’re also avoiding relying on basic/standard descriptions so there’s a strong sense of voice. Nice job!
Once her acceleration reached 70 miles per hour, Riley pressed the raised button on the right side of her car’s steering wheel to set her cruising speed. She had decided to enjoy this part of her trip with the windows down so that the crisp mountain air would keep her invigorated enough to complete the journey. Although part of her hearing was now impeded by the current altitude, she felt refreshed and excited. Her eyes gleamed behind her dark sunglasses as she focused and maneuvered the curves, peaks and valleys of the highway alongside various sedans, convertibles, pickups, and freight trucks. Though this type of driving was a new experience to Riley, she mastered the road like a seasoned commuter.
Notes: The descriptions are way too long. This paragraph is 120 words and probably only needs to be 20. “The raised button on the right side of her car’s steering wheel” is far too complicated. The first sentence could be condensed to something like: Once Riley hit seventy miles per hour, she set the car to cruise. “She decided to enjoy this part of her trip with the windows down” is far too complicated and this sentence could be cut down to something like: The crisp mountain air blew through the window. “Her eyes gleamed behind her dark sunglasses” doesn’t make much sense since if her glasses were dark, her eyes wouldn’t have any light gleaming in them and they wouldn’t be visible. The list of types of vehicles she passes is unnecessary. Get to the problem or motivation faster and cut down on descriptions.
Bill stared up at the large wooden clock over the mantel. He admired its gleaming reddish wood, which was always polished with great care by his mother, and delicate black hands. He appreciated how they stood out against the clock’s stark, white face with its intricately carved Roman numerals which had been punched out to reveal the inner workings of the clock.
Notes: Starting with a character looking or staring at something tends to not work well because it isn’t very interesting for the reader. Bill is mentioned, but the paragraph is really about the clock and his mother which creates distance between the reader and the protagonist. In the second sentence “and delicate black hands” doesn’t make sense. I think you mean “by his mother’s delicate black hands.” If the Roman numerals are punched out, then describing them seems odd. Overall, the writing is a bit awkward and there isn’t enough connection to Bill.
Sadie shook an envelope filled with dead beetles to the rhythm of a song she couldn’t quite remember. The spirited rustle, like seeds anxious to be planted, emboldened her, even as her body ached under her fifty-pound pack. These insect husks would be all the proof she needed. She trudged beyond the tree line. Only fifty more meters to Mount Howell’s summit.
Smoke scratched the back of her throat, confirming the late summer wind was already pushing the forest fires east. She paused for a sip of warm water. Working alone in the woods, Sadie marked time in elevation and ounces of water. She was running out of both.
She dialed Thea, her research director.
“It’s the pine beetles. Just like I thought.” Sadie’s breath was heavy as she stutter-stepped on the gravelly incline. “They’re killing off the pines, and with this drought, it’s all going to burn.”
“The fire’s shifting. You need to come down. Now.”
“Wait till you see my wood samples. This is going to change everything.”
“If we thin the beetle-infested trees ahead of the fire, we can head it off.”
“You lost the grant.”
Silence as deep as her dying forest surrounded Sadie.
“I’ve got proof now. The beetles everyone says aren’t here yet? They’re here.” Sadie looked down the slope at the defenseless pines. “It’s just like California and Colorado. You want me to pretend nothing’s happening just because I don’t have grant money?”
Notes: Though very simple as far as hooks go, the opening sentence worked as a hook for me because I immediately wanted to know what kind of person would use an envelope of dead beetles to create a rhythm. I like that the scene has an emotional progression since she starts out oblivious to having lost the grant. This is a nice smooth read that pulls the reader along without any stumbles. Nice job!
All roads lead to a shrink’s couch. Or maybe this is where I would have ended up regardless of whatever path I’d have picked. What do I know? My compass got broken long before I knew I was even lost.
I shifted on the wooden chair. Unfortunately, it didn’t help the numbness going down my left leg. Dr.Hutchins had said that might still happen even after everything. I really had hoped to prove him wrong and maybe be that one patient to buck the odds. But I guess being a medical miracle twice in a lifetime would be pushing it.
I really needed to curb that habit. Hoping, that is. Hope seems harmless to those who aren’t desperate. But from my experience, when that bright bulb of possibilities breaks, things get dark fast, and more than a little dangerous. Especially for me.
Seriously, though, why didn’t Dr. Patel have a leather couch? I adjusted myself on the seat. Wasn’t there supposed to be a couch?
Notes: The contrast between the first and second sentences isn’t well developed. “All roads lead” and “regardless of whatever path I’d have picked” mean almost exactly the same thing. The compass comment is irrelevant if all roads lead to the same place. I get what you’re going for with this opening paragraph, but it’s not working. The second paragraph is a lot stronger – good voice, smoothly executed. The third paragraph has similar issues to the first because it’s not clear what you mean. “Hope seems harmless to those who aren’t desperate” has no clear meaning to me. If you’re desperate, hope is harmful? I’m not sure I understand why. The next line about things getting dark when the bright bulb breaks is a bit off because “from my experience” is unnecessary: if the bulb breaks, it’s going to be dark for anyone. The last line was a tad jarring because I thought Dr. Hutchins was the doctor she was seeing now so Dr. Patel confused me. I would drop the metaphors. Your voice is strong and you don’t need them.
His early years were a hollow space, one of his first memories that of his mother dabbing beeswax into a scrape on his forehead. The sweet woodsy smell was curious to him, her humming strange and warm.
He was perhaps three years old and without a name when he arrived, delivered on horse by a woman who smelled like grass and who’s pillowy breasts sat comfortably behind his head. She had black crescents of dirt under her rough fingernails and when he squirmed too much she gently smacked his hand and whispered words he didn’t understand.
The road turned to a path, a rough, deep shady path that eventually opened up to a small clearing, chickens about the place and a low grey cabin in the center. He didn’t understand where he was and felt a sting behind his eyes, his vision blurred and watery, and when he got off the horse he fell and cracked his head on a sharp rock. The woman with pillowy breasts stood him up and examined his forehead, tsking and clucking. Then a different woman stepped out of the cabin, her hand to her chest, and rushed towards him, her fiery hair had come loose and strands were flying behind her. She brought him inside, and wiped his teary face with her apron, nursing his wound with the beeswax from a small crock.
Notes: In the first sentence, I found “that of his mother” a bit awkward/clunky. The second paragraph kept my interest and I like the hook of wondering how/why/where he arrived. The first sentence of the third paragraph is a bit awkward to me, specifically “chickens about the place” because it’s not clear what “place” refers to before the cabin is introduced. The second sentence of the third paragraph feels like a run-on and would benefit from being broken up into two. I would probably keep reading but I would expect/hope that the narration gets a bit tighter on the protagonist which probably will happen once the story jumps forward in time to when he’s older.
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2 thoughts on “First Page Critiques: Adult Realistic Fiction [Novel Boot Camp]”
Thanks for your advice. It’s hard to get this right. #4 One thing I often wonder. I read first pages of famous best sellers and am often not impressed. Do they get away with all the things you warn us against just because they’re famous and people are going to read anyway? The books are great obviously but the openings??
Maybe their first pages are not impressive. But they are good. And perhaps good is all that is needed.
Writers not yet pro sometimes can stretch to be impressive and make clumsy mistakes. So maybe don’t try to impress in your opening. Just make it clear, tell how it is, and add a little conflict or tension.
The hooded man walked across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
– Stephen King.
It doesn’t blow us away. But we know there is conflict between a hooded man and a gunslinger. We know the gunslinger is after the hooded man. And we know the location – the desert.
All that info from one simple line.