First Page Critiques: Young Adult [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. Mainstream

Joni and Mike hadn’t spoken a single word since we’d left the house. I watched from the backseat of the car as they gave each other a sideways glance. Their eyes were narrow, lips thin and pinched, like either of them could burst into tears at any moment. It was a look that said they’d gotten in way over their heads when they decided to take me in. I couldn’t blame them for feeling that way.
Neither of them were prepared to handle the girl whose parents had been brutally murdered, whose brother went missing at the scene.

Notes: In my mind, a sideways glance conveys a “we know something you don’t know and we’re not telling” attitude rather than sadness. A furtive glance might be stronger. I’ve seen a lot of openings that focus on how troubled and difficult the narrator can be, but this can come across as emo rather than genuinely emotional. I think you’re being too forward with your backstory and too on the nose with the emotional content and it’s falling flat.

  1. Historical

Eiji hummed a playful tune as she plucked herb after herb from the soft soil. She looked up from her work to check on Lord Ko. She found him knee deep in the slow moving river close by, poised to catch a fish with his sharp claws. His white hair shone in the sun and his wide grin exposed his small canine teeth. Physically and mentally Lord Ko was four human years of age, but this was actually his fifteenth summer.

Notes: This seems to be fantasy rather than historical unless I’m misunderstanding your descriptions. I would provide some explanation of her feelings or thoughts about picking the herbs just to make it seem relevant, then I would have her look up to see Lord Ko, however I would cut “she found” because it’s unnecessary and creates distance. There’s more focus on the side character than on Eiji (presumably the main character) which is creating a lot of distance.

  1. Science Fiction

Today I will find out my name.

‘It’ll be fine, Seven. You’re going to ace it,’ whispers Six. I tilt my head closer as her quiet voice tickles my ear.

I frown, lost in her dilated pupils. The impending Caste Test is forgotten for that second. ‘Maybe.’

I’m soaked and sticky, surrounded by twenty Greenhorns from our training camp. The smell of damp, sweat and urine fills the back of the truck. Twelve wears a permanent frown, One bites his nails, and Nine’s hands shake on her tapping legs. The road out of camp is bumpy and the rain outside thumps on the canvas roof.

Notes: Opening with a focus on an upcoming test or evaluation is quickly becoming the newest trope opening for scifi. I’ve seen numbered characters before so it’s not wowing me conceptually. I think your best bet is to start with an emotional hook rather than starting with the evaluation. The first line works, but I would show the reader more about this particular character before introducing the Caste Test so you can rope in readers before getting into some elements that might not stand out.

  1. Fantasy

“Fire!” Matthew yelled. He ran down the hallway, pounding on the bedroom doors. The timber frame of the house shook under the power of his violent thumps.

“Fire! Wake up! Fire!” He coughed, struggling for breath, lifting his t-shirt over his nose and mouth to filter the dense air.

A door opened. Piper peered out, sleep gluing her eyes half closed. One look at his face and the smoke billowing behind him and she dashed back inside to wake some of the others.

Notes: Openings that rely on fast-paced action tend to not work well in most situations. The reader doesn’t know these characters so the fire isn’t too troubling. You would probably do better to start a scene before or after the fire, though you might be able to make this work by taking a slightly more distant approach to make room for motivation and introspection. Could a house be standing if the entire frame shook when someone pounded on the doors? That seems a little too weak to me. I don’t know who Piper is in relation to Matthew or who “the others” are. Without any connection to Matthew (no physical description, no sense of emotions, no connection to the other characters) it’s tough to invest in this opening.

  1. Fantasy

The roar of the engine is barely audible over the radio in my ears.
I keep my gaze forward, never taking my hands off of the wheel or looking at the scenery as it passes by. It would only confuse me. I need to focus.
The radio crackles, struggling to find a signal.
– and we have reports that the death rate is rising and –
– not a cloud in the sky, folks, great day for –
– the pouring rain is making visibility difficult tonight –
– and I…will always loooove –
– and I’m here with the general, who has generously come out this evening to speak with us. Sir, what is your recommendation for the citizens of this state in light of the –
– YOU WILL DIE of happiness when you see the stains vanish, just like that, with just a spritz of this miraculous –
I slam my shaking fist on the volume button, cutting it off. The last thing I need are more distractions.

Notes: I like the second paragraph but I’d also like more of a hint of why he’s confused and needs to focus. I got bored less than halfway through the radio broadcasts. It’s a clever idea, but it’s not telling the reader hardly anything. There are stronger ways to introduce the world and your character.

  1. Fantasy

I am annoyed. Celeste’s head, with its intricately braided plaits piled regally on top, is blocking my view of the province delegates as they ride through the gateway, each bearing their native colors on dusty, limp banners. For most, it has been a long journey and, although backs are straight and heads held high, the horses plod slowly along the gray cobblestone road.

“Really, Celeste,” I hiss at her, “Could your hair get any bigger?”

She barely glances at me, her smile unwavering as she continuously rotates one hand above her wrist in a politely royal wave. Even that annoys me.

“I can’t help it, your highness,” she responds, her lips barely moving, “Beatrice was just trying to follow orders and make my appearance is similar as possible to that of your Highness.” The wrist continues to rotate.

I sigh deeply. She’s right, of course. I resist the urge to smack her hand out of its rhythm. Then Celeste adds, “A housemaid should not even be here. Unless you are delivering refreshments to the princess, of course.” Her regal half-smile barely budges while she says the words.

I can’t stand the girl. I would never tolerate this charade if I did not think it was the only way to see past the boring and politically correct facade each of the delegates would be presenting to the crown princess during his stay. And see past them I must. For the royal counsel has decreed that it is time for me to marry.

Notes: The first sentence is long and packed with information that would benefit from a slower introduction. I love that the narrator is annoyed with Celeste and her big hair. The second section of dialogue has a typo: “is similar as” should be “as similar as.” I probably wouldn’t use the word “regal” to describe her smile since it’s also used to describe her hair. The second sentence of the last paragraph is too long and it’s difficult to understand what you mean. A girl who must get married is definitely a common element of fantasy so make sure you’re taking a fresh approach.

  1. Fantasy

Tynder Dutch wasn’t afraid of the dark. The cold damp cell reminded him of his childhood. Even the smell of spoiled sickly things wafting in didn’t bother him. He knew exactly where he was. The prison cells of Dinan were strangely quiet, but he wasn’t worried. Crouched down, with his back pressed against a pitted corner, he busied himself pushing sand into a hole he rather enjoyed chiseling out. He intended to mark it somehow but the hint of another smell caught his attention. With a steady breath he drew it in and when he placed its origin the corner of his lip raised.

As a child, the ability to smell was the first sense Tynder mastered. Magic had its own special smell. Sometimes his urge for it was so strong that he swore if he didn’t follow it he’d go mad. But this time, this time it was coming to him.

Notes: The second sentence comes across as a tad emo to me. “Wafting in” reads awkwardly in the third sentence. “He knew exactly where he was” is a bit jarring because the reader had no reason to think he didn’t know where he was. The description of the hole could be a nice way to show the mundanity of being imprisoned, but overall you spend so much time describing how much he doesn’t care that the reader struggles to connect emotionally. The first sentence of the second paragraph doesn’t have enough context to be taken in the way you intend. It comes across as if he simply mastered the ability to smell, but smelling isn’t exactly a sense that requires skill. Most likely you’re just starting at the wrong place and/or by emphasizing the wrong things.

  1. Fantasy

At the edge of a subway platform at 57th and 7th, I scan the rush-hour crowd for the man I’m following. He’s close, but his thoughts are scattered and hard to read among those of commuters scurrying along the platform. It’s a late Friday afternoon, but unlike those looking to wind down after a long week of school and work or get ready for a party or two, I’m in the middle of a hunt.

My parents like to scold me about playing with my food, but few things trump hunting prey through the crowded streets of New York City. At first, it’s overwhelming because there are so many delicious pieces to choose. It’s like walking into Pierrots, that French chocolate shop on the Upper East Side, and spending hours deciding whether I want dark chocolate with raspberry filling, crunchy hazelnut nougats or some buttery white chocolate truffles. Sometimes I want them all.

In much the same way, when I roam the streets of the Big Apple, there’s always more than a handful of victims to choose from. But that’s where the similarities of tracking souls and walking into a chocolate shop stop.

I weave my way through the crowd and farther down the platform toward my target. But as I got closer, I crinkle my nose. He reeks of excessive aftershave, roasted onions, and a sourness and decay that I could only describe as a hint of scumbag. Michael Lowes is his name.

Notes: The first paragraph works for me. You’re starting in the action and raising questions. The last sentence of the first paragraph is a bit awkward and the end of the sentence would benefit from being shortened, perhaps to: “long week of school or work, I’m in the middle of a hunt.”  I could take or leave the comparison to chocolate, but I would cut out “spending hours deciding” because I don’t think anyone has actually spent hours choosing a chocolate. “In much the same way” is unnecessary and could be cut. I would definitely keep reading, however I would expect to very shortly see a unique spin on the concept of a teenager hunting souls, something juicy to sink my teeth into.

  1. Fantasy

If my soul was already damned, as the villagers liked to say, then two more bodies would guarantee it. Maybe tonight’d be that night.

Didn’t they know that I could hear everything from my corner of the alcove? What they thought were murmurs, periodically punctuated with giggles, echoed off the cavern walls like a covey of quails unaware that a ravenous scorpion awaited them– poised and ready to strike.

My eyes darted back and forth from one Kan sister to the next. They were seated, tête-à-tête, across a circle drawn in the sand. Only a veil of smoke hissing from the four candles set on the damp floor protected them from me.

I might not have been able to control the cursed gifts they thought I had, but the dagger sheathed at my thigh would certainly find its marks. But no blood could be drawn tonight. Not yet.

The Ama had visited us this night. Our ancestral spirits had stolen into our dreams while embers of our hearths still pulsed with their last breaths.

Notes: I like the first sentence and I think it works as a hook. The second sentence is awkward because “that night” implies a night has been previously referred to which it hasn’t been. “I might not be able to control the cursed gifts they thought I had” doesn’t make sense. If they only think she has the gift then why is it stated as fact that it can’t be controlled? The “but” in that same sentence is a bit confusing because there’s no clear relationship between the first and second half of the sentence. The last line feels a little too fancy like it’s trying too hard, but that’s sort of personal opinion.  I think you would benefit from giving a slightly stronger sense of the setting (I’m not sure if I should be imagining modern, historical, or otherworldly people, clothes, etc.).

  1. Science Fiction

Keelia sat down on a park bench beside a man in a dark suit. “The fox runs swiftly.”

“Except in deep snow.”

“Unless it’s Christmas in July,” she objected, following the script that appeared as a transparent overlay in her vision.

“Do you have the package?”

“Do you have the money?”

The man removed a thick envelope from his suit coat and opened it, thumbing a stack of old-fashioned Benjamins. Keelia pulled out a sealed, matching envelope. Warily, they traded. The man stood and moved to leave.

“Aren’t you going to check it?” She put the cash in a pocket of her maroon blazer where it would vanish and be credited to her game account.

Notes: The concept of a code phrase has been pushed almost entirely into humor at this point so it’s likely going to be tough to set a serious scene that opens with an exchange of code phrases. I’m being a bit nitpicky, but the script is not transparent (presumably) or it would be extremely difficult to read. The description of the exchange seems like stage directions because there’s no emotional context to what’s happening. This tense exchange turning out to just be some sort of exchange of game credits is a bit anticlimactic. I think you’re trying to rely too much on mystery when you would probably do better with a straightforward opening.

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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2 thoughts on “First Page Critiques: Young Adult [Novel Boot Camp]

  1. Dale Ivory says:

    For the author of number 7: I was instantly intrigued with your character. Fantasy has it’s own flavor of odd characters populating worlds and this beginning has me drooling with hunger to know if this is one I will love. I wonder if he’s a little insane or the thief type who got caught. And what does magic smell like? And if the magic is coming to him, is it coming on a person, a drifting flow of energy, or what?

    To borrow your words – the urge to read your story is so strong I might go mad – haha!

    My intention is to encourage you with the hope that you will work with Ellen or another great editor to fine tune your story so that I can read it in full one day.

    Good Luck

    • Ellep says:

      I really appreciate your encouragement. Ellen’s critique pointed out issues I agree with. Your curiosity along with her suggestions make me more motivated to work harder on this story. Thanks for your comment!

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