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…”
Branches as sharp as sin, bark as black as midnight. The ravenwood tree clawed out of the ground. Reached up to the sky, its shadow inking the grass of the tiny garden that was wrapped by a soft, bending wood fence; strangled in nettles.
Peeking over the fence, Innogen’s blue eyes, looking right at Darcy. Her lemon hair, tight to her shoulders. Her brow wrinkling. Abigail glued to her side.
Notes: A lot of the descriptions don’t work for me. You’re trying too hard and it makes the writing feel strained. “Sharp as sin” and “black as midnight” really aren’t saying anything that couldn’t be accomplished with just “sharp” and “black,” they’re similes just for the sake of fancier writing. The second line had me imagining a living/humanoid tree clawing out of the ground (this is fantasy after all!). In what sense is the fence bending? Is it leaning or do you mean it’s arranged in a curve? I might be a little picky, but “strangled” makes me think of a vine rather than nettles. Describing hair as “tight to her shoulders” is a bit odd. In what sense is the hair “tight”? This makes me imagine her hair is stiff. I think you’re a good writer, just trying too hard.
Tristan trudged through the front gate of his village. He blew a lock of coffee-colored hair that was stuck to his eyelid while sweat streaked down his cheeks. In his arms he bore a cumbersome wooden box filled with stones and minerals his father would use to make glazes for their pottery. The youth spent all day near the creek collecting the precious rocks, one by one in the mud and muck of a streambed.
Notes: The second sentence is too long and should be broken into two. What’s cumbersome about the box he’s carrying? Be a little more specific. Is it big or awkwardly shaped? “The youth” is a phrase teenagers won’t relate to. It sounds awkward and almost as if you’re talking down to teens. I don’t think you’re starting the story at the right point. Start with a conceptual/fantasy hook (something cool about your world) or something emotional (Tristan’s desires or flaw or problem).
‘Is today a good day to steal a person?’
Governor Calverton closed his eyes, one hand on his battered copy of the Editions.
‘Technically, you stole him yesterday, sir.’
Calverton jumped at the sound of his assistant’s voice, and shoved the almanac under his desk. ‘Gods! You’re always sneaking around. Good morning Godros.’
‘Morning, Governor,’ said Godros, pulling open the shutters fully. ‘I thought you didn’t believe in all that “superstitious nonsense”.’
Notes: The first line seems contrived, especially because Governor Calverton was supposedly talking to himself and he already stole the “person” the previous day. The last line about superstitious nonsense is a cliché and is used too frequently to work as a hook. Starting with adults rather than the teenage protagonist is very risky and I don’t recommend it unless you have an excellent reason for doing so.
I didn’t really know what was happening. My mother though, she was upset, distraught even, but why?
“I still don’t understand why you need to take her right now?” she said, unsuccessfully attempting to even her tone.
“She needs to be evaluated as soon as possible Mrs. Snow,” Grandmaster Naylor told her.
Notes: The first two sentences aren’t drawing the reader in. I would set the scene, describe what’s occurring, and then draw the reader into her emotions (use sensory information if possible). Starting with a child needing to be evaluated is a pretty common opening in scifi and fantasy and it’s very unlikely to stand out in the submission pile.
I told another lie today.
It’s getting so easy I almost believe it’s true.
Evans the Sheep arrives to scan our flock. He asks where my girlfriend comes from and I don’t miss a beat. I just smile and say “America”. Evans nods and says, “Tidy,” then he tells me the ewe he’s scanning is having twins so I daub two splashes of blue paint on its fleece and Sarah herds it into the pen with the other two dot ewes.
Notes: Telling lies isn’t inherently a hook. The concept of lying so much that the lies start to feel true is widespread enough that it teeters towards feeling like a cliché here. “Evans the Sheep” confused me and I stumbled over it. I’m assuming he’s lying about his girlfriend, but this doesn’t seem like a high-stakes lie so it’s not much for the reader to get excited about. I wouldn’t start the story by focusing on lying unless it plays a major thematic role in the novel.
Phinneas Jones slipped silently through the doors of Utopia City Hall, hoping that by some random act of magic he would disappear. When he was a child, his father had taken him to London to see a famous magician put on a act in which he had made a girl vanish into thin air. It was the greatest magic act he had ever witnessed, and ever since then, he had been obsessed with magic tricks of all sorts.
Notes: “Utopia City Hall” is so on the nose that it almost seems cartoonish. It immediately limits the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. A character wishing they could disappear is fairly overused so doesn’t stand out and might even qualify as a trope. There’s too much focus on when he saw a famous magician and I don’t think it’s actually relevant.
I had to be the only person with their eyes open.
I’d stopped closing my eyes and praying long ago. I still went through the motions. I still bent my head, still kneeled on the pew when instructed to, still ate the crackers and drank the wine.
But I’d stopped praying to my mother’s and father’s God long ago.
I hated Sundays.
The priest stood at the front of the room, praying aloud, his voice mingling with the whispered prayers of the others. I’d never bothered to learn his name. Eyes open, I watched from the balcony as people bent their heads in worship, asked for favors and saviors and nonsense. Pointless. Worthless.
Notes: The first line seems like a trick to get the reader to think something cooler or more exciting is going on. “My mother’s and father’s God” seems awkward and unnatural. Usually people go to the same church for years and usually the priest stays the same for years, so “never bothered to learn his name” seems a little odd, like never bothering to learn a teacher’s name: it doesn’t seem possible. Atheism is pretty common and widespread these days among teenagers (some studies have the number as high as 25% of teens in the US and 60% in the UK) so there isn’t much shock value in a teenager not believing in God and I think you’re relying on that shock value to create the hook here.
The evening air singed with electricity as Rowan stepped out the woodshop door. The handle crackled unpleasantly against her fingers as she pulled it shut and slid in a key to secure the single-bolt lock. She checked the window to be sure she had removed the Open for Business sign, then stepped out into the street.
Notes: You’re spending 56 words when you really only need 10-20. The writing feels very verbose. Even if you were to condense this down, I’m wondering if this is really the most interesting place to start the story. There isn’t a lot for the reader to connect to.
Hekla rumbled a blessing that shook the blood-streaked ice field underfoot, and though each of the warriors bellowed an answering battle cry, Aelli Skunsdottir imagined the distant volcano spoke only for her.
“You’ve bested all but one. Defeat this last, and you’ll win the Hearth Trials,” the fiery mountain seemed to say. Or maybe, “Winning gives you a chance with the Blades. Don’t foul it up.” Or more likely, “Victory doesn’t ensure the Blades accept you, but losing ensures they won’t. Then everything you’ve worked for will curl up and die, leaving naught but a feast for ravens in the bleak snow.”
Volcanoes could be terrible bitches sometimes.
Notes: I like that you’re going for a strong voice, but it seems very uneven right now. The last line of this excerpt doesn’t seem to fit in the same story as the first line. The opening line is very long and pushes the reader to work a little bit too hard to understand it. It’s confusing to mention the volcano speaking, then have dialogue, then explain that it’s just what the volcano “seems” to be saying. I thought it was some kind of talking volcano. I got bored by the third explanation of what the volcano could be saying. Maybe this would work in first person, but it’s actually a bit boring because it’s a thinly veiled explanation of the character’s motivation and goal while at the same time it’s not being clear or overt and we don’t know anything about the character so there’s no point of connection.
Deep in the heart of the citadel ruins, Wren fed the contents of a man’s life to a fire. His spare shirts and socks, bed sheets, a commendation for an artifact retrieval from world fifty-nine—the blue flames devoured them all. The heat was intense for such a cold color. It played tricks on her mind, making her shiver and sweat all at once.
Smoke coiled around her before following the night wind into a line of splintered columns to her right. Wren pulled the neck of her shirt higher, making sure it covered both her mouth and nose. Still, the smell of sage seeped through—the smell that meant the guildworkers had been here recently to burn bodies. Harvested from world sixty-two, the leaves were supposed to cleanse the air of the scent of death but they only made Wren gag. To her they were the scent of death.
Her shallow breaths hitched in her chest as she bent and picked up an engraved portrait of a strong-jawed woman. A mother, a daughter, a lover? She massaged her aching chest and tossed it into the blaze anyway. Everything had to go. No exceptions.
Only one bell had rung since she’d stood at the south gate of the ranger compound on keeper duty as always. Only one bell since she’d found the crescent, the earliest sign of the waning, on Conan Longstride’s wrist and rushed him to quarantine. Already, most of his life had turned to ash.
Notes: This is one of only two or three openings that genuinely kept my interest throughout. I do have a few suggestions: “Deep in the heart” is a pretty common cliché and probably not the best place to start the story. In the first sentence of the last paragraph, “as always” reads awkward and clunky. The second sentence of this paragraph is a little clunky to me as well but it’s forgivable. I would expect to get into her personal issues/desires almost immediately after this excerpt. Overall, nice job!
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