Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Category: Agents/Agenting

9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 3

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.

For the Part 2 of this article series, click here.

Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers who want to work on craft. During our workshop, we identified several story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers who are looking for representation. Thus, this series of articles was born! Here we bring you the third installment.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”

A common opening-page snafu we often see is when writers spend too much time setting up what is “normal” for the character before leaping into what will make this story/character extraordinary.

We see a lot of opening pages that show a character performing mindless tasks, such as cleaning the house, grooming (getting out of the shower, combing hair, brushing teeth), taking a child to school, collecting the mail, making breakfast, or having conversations that revolve around the mundane. And don’t forget our all-time favorite: a character waking up. (See “The Perils of Waking Characters” Part 1 and Part 2 on my blog for more about why this opening spells trouble.)

Illustrating the normal is not dynamic. In the normal, very little can be revealed about the character or setting. Because of this, we’re also on alert for openings like these:

“Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning].”

“If I’d only known then what I know now…[followed by pages of detail about then].”

These types of openings hint at an inciting incident. But what the writer is really doing here is postponing the story conflict. They’re asking the reader to bear with them through a few opening pages of mundane tasks and details by making a vague promise that there’s good stuff coming later. In most cases, that simply doesn’t work.

The Importance of Voice

Accomplished writers use literary voice to transcend what might be considered mundane. A terrific example is the opening scene of Gail Carriger’s Soulless:

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.

This scene actually does open with a light touch of the mundane, but Carriger’s unique voice draws the reader in. Most importantly, the scene doesn’t stay in the mundane for very long—only two sentences, and then in the third, an unexpected vampire appears. The surprise is not the vampire. He’s actually expected in this world. It’s his attack that knocks Alexia off balance. Every vampire knows Alexia is soulless and therefore renders the supernatural powerless once touched. This persistent vampire doesn’t seem to know this nor does he seem to learn quickly when his power disappears. This is what then grabs the reader and won’t let go. Carriger takes the mundane and uses voice, wit, and a twist to engage the reader…all in the first three pages of the novel.

The Hero’s Journey and the Ordinary World

Angie here. Many writers’ first contact with story structure is the Hero’s Journey. It gets pounded into us at writing conferences and story workshops, and through books on how to plot a novel.

According to the Hero’s Journey (useful to screenwriters, constraining to novelists), we must devote our first few pages to the “ordinary world.” This is supposed to paint a picture of what the hero’s life is like before the Big Boom of the story’s inciting incident. Without the hero’s ordinary world, how will the reader recognize that change has occurred once they reach the end of the novel?


What this widespread education in the Hero’s Journey has done is fill slush piles everywhere with sample pages full of ordinary worlds. Yet what are agents looking for? Extraordinary. Your best bet for standing out in the slush pile is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible.

Bonus Tip: The Chapter Two Switcheroo

James Scott Bell, the author of some of Angie’s favorite books on writing and revision, suggests that once you finish an entire draft of your novel, go back and swap your first two chapters. So many aspiring writers frontload their first chapters with backstory, exposition, and narrative, saving the action and conflict for chapter two. Sometimes, switching those first two chapters is all you need to do to fix a boring opening. Plant the hook first. Then see how much of the other stuff you really need in order to tell your protagonist’s tale in the most compelling—and extraordinary!—way possible.

Photo Credit: Sherman Geronimo-Tan

9 Story Openings To Avoid, Part 2

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.

Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers working on craft. During our workshop, we identified story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers looking for representation.

In fact, we’re offering a three-part webinar-workshop called “Opening Pages That Lead to Yes.” It starts August 4. Want to sign up? Click here.

First, a word of caution. Take everything we are going to highlight in this series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can get away with any type of opening and make it work—even one of the nine types we are going to suggest that you avoid! So much depends on a writer’s mastery of voice, style, and scene craft.

Trust me, there is that 1% of writers out there who can break all the rules and make their stories work spectacularly. But do you want to bet that you are among that 1%? That’s quite a gamble! If, however, you think maybe you’re among the other 99% percent, then this series is for you. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the nine types of openings we’re going to share with you in this series often don’t work because they are overused or have become crutches for writers who haven’t yet mastered craft. Avoid these openings, and you will automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile!

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#2) Your novel opens with White Room Syndrome. 

In other words, you may have succeeded at putting at least one character on the page, and maybe some sort of action, too, but you’ve forgotten to share any details about your setting. Does your opening scene occur inside or outside? At night or during the day? In cold weather or hot? Where is your character, what’s nearby, and how does this environment affect him or her in this scene? Omit such details, and your reader has no choice but to imagine that your story is taking place in a “white room.”

Anchor your reader in time and place in your manuscript’s opening pages—this is the number-one comment I make when I do critiques at conferences.

As Angie will now discuss, there are several tips and tricks you can use to identify and revise White Room Syndrome (WRS) in your own opening scenes:

a.) Does your story start with a lengthy passage of dialogue? This might be the number-one indicator of WRS. Check your opening scene and make sure that your characters’ words aren’t hanging in the air in a white room. Without a sense of setting (time and place), the reader is left with no idea of where the characters are, why they’re there, and how this conversation might be important to the story.

b.) Character is to Voice as Setting is to AtmosphereJust as you choose your words carefully to give your character a distinctive voice, choose your words carefully to imbue your setting with a sense of atmosphere—one that supports the overall mood of the scene. Consider:

Beatrice sauntered into the bordello’s frilly parlor, the plush pink carpet muffling the clank-clank-clank of her silver spurs.

Beatrice crept through the shadows of the bordello’s dusty parlor, the clank-clank-clank of her silver spurs echoing off the creaky floorboards. 

In the first sentence, Beatrice is sauntering, and the setting is frilly, plush, and pink. In the second, Beatrice is creeping, and the setting is dusty and creaky, with shadows and echoes. Were each of these the first sentence of a novel, my readerly imagination would be set up for a very different sort of story. The words you choose to lend your setting atmosphere matter.

c.) Does your setting impinge on your character’s senses? We know we’re supposed to use all five senses in our fiction—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. But this tip takes that advice a step further. Consider:

Bob sat behind the wheel of the getaway car, eyes peeled on the front door of the bank. It was hot and sunny, and he was sweating, and the front seat was too cramped for his three-hundred-pound frame. He tore the wrapper off another Ding Dong and took a bite. It was time, he decided, that the gang ditched the Chevelle and invested in a van.

Bob sat in the getaway car, the steering wheel digging painfully into his ample gut. Sweat plastered his tee shirt to his chest and back. He shaded his eyes from the sun beating down on him through the Chevelle’s cracked windshield and squinted at the front door of the bank. He tore into another Ding Dong. It was time, he decided, that the gang invested in a van.

In both passages, the setting includes the interior of a getaway car and a hot sun. But only in the second passage are these setting elements doing something to Bob. The steering wheel is digging painfully into his ample gut. The sun is beating down on him, making his sweat plaster his clothes to his body. In this passage, the setting is not only present, but it’s also impinging on the character in such a way that he can’t ignore it—and neither can the reader. Look for ways to make your setting impinge on your character, not just in your opening pages, but throughout your manuscript!

Check your opening pages for WRS. Better yet, give your first scene to a friend or critique partner, and then ask them to describe the setting they imagined when they read it. Does it match what you imagined when you wrote it? If not, then we hope these tips will help you revise!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: MazZuk

New Article Series: 9 Story Openings To Avoid

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

Last month, Angie Hodapp and I co-taught an opening-pages workshop at a day-long education event for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. First time ever Angie and I teamed up to hopefully bring wit and wisdom to writers who want to work on craft. We had an absolute blast.

We identified several story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers who are looking for representation. As the participants frantically took notes, I looked at Angie and said, “This would be awesome for our newsletter.” She agreed. Thus, this series of articles was born!

First, a word of caution. Take everything we are going to highlight in this series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can get away with any type of opening and make it work—even one of the nine types we are going to suggest that you avoid! So much depends on a writer’s mastery of voice, style, and scene craft.

Trust me, there is that 1% of writers out there who can break all the rules and make their stories work spectacularly. But do you want to bet that you are among that 1%? That’s quite a gamble! If, however, you think maybe you’re among the other 99% percent, then this series is for you. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the nine types of openings we’re going to share with you here don’t work simply because we see them so often that they’re no longer fresh or original. Avoid them, and you automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile! So let’s dive in.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#1) Your novel opens with your main character alone somewhere thinking. Not a very dynamic way to start what might otherwise be an amazing story! Angie and I like to say these openings have fallen prey to one of “The Deadly R’s”:

  • Remembering
  • Reminiscing
  • Reflecting
  • Ruminating

If your main character is doing any of the above, more than likely you’ve started your novel in the wrong place. How so? The Deadly R’s often signal that you’re starting with one of the following:

  • Backstory. Your character is thinking about something that happened in the past, off stage, before page one. Writers often start this way because they want the reader to understand right on page one that something has happened to the character (yesterday, last year, ten years ago) that will now, in this novel, motivate him or her to act. The problem is with this setup as an opening scene is that nothing is happening now.
  • Exposition. Your character is conveniently thinking about background information that you, the writer, want to give readers before your story really starts. Writers often start this way because they worry that readers won’t understand their stories if readers don’t first understand the finer points of nuclear fission…or the historical events that led up to the Battle of Bunker Hill…or how the tribes of Borneo hunted venomous snakes. And you might be right. But there are many more exciting, compelling, provocative ways to start a story than by introducing it with a classroom-style lesson on your background information—delivered via the internalizations of a character conveniently (and often awkwardly) thinking about things he or she already knows.

To see if your opening pages have fallen prey to The Deadly R’s, imagine that you’re a movie director. It’s your job to capture the first action of your story on screen and make sure it captivates your audience. If your movie-direction of your novel’s first pages requires a narrative voice-over, then you might be in trouble.

A second way to check? Grab a yellow highlighter and highlight every thought your character has on the first three pages of your novel. If you’ve highlighted more lines of text than you haven’t, then you might be in trouble.

Remember: It’s not that your character isn’t allowed to think on your opening pages. It’s that when you replace action or masterful scene craft with the deep thoughts of a character we don’t really know yet, and whose conflict we’re not yet invested in, then you’re most likely dampening our enthusiasm to read on.

Photo Credit: Dave Bleasdale

Former Egmont Authors: Check Your Royalty Statements

Publishing is a complex business with a lot of moving parts. Every contract is unique, and most errors we find on royalty statements are caused by data-entry mishaps that occur when contract terms are incorrectly keyed into publishers’ accounting systems.

In other words, human error is often the culprit.

So I’m going to give Lerner the benefit of the doubt and assume that such a scenario is currently at play here.

A recap of history for context: In January 2016, news hit the wires that Egmont USA children’s publisher was closing up shop due to its failure to find a buyer.

This created a lot of consternation, as more than 100 titles that were going to be published were now suddenly in limbo and contracts would most likely be canceled.

Good news was just around the corner, though, in the shape of Lerner, who bought out the titles and committed to honoring the contracts. Authors would live happily ever after!

Until their royalty statements arrived.

On the surface, everything looks normal. Royalty rates appear to be the same as they were under Egmont—except for one very crucial difference. Egmont contracts specified that author royalties would be calculated based on list price. But when the Lerner statements arrived, royalties are now being calculated based on net amounts received.

Not the same thing.

How do they differ? Let’s do some easy math: 10% of list price = approximately 20% of net amounts received. If this in play, the author will earn approximately the same amount of money, regardless of whether the calculation is done based on list price or based on net amounts received.

So not a big deal. The problem occurs if the number “10” stays the same, but how it was calculated changes.

Here’s why: 10% of net amounts receive is one-half (1/2) the royalty money earned in comparison to 10% of list price.

That’s a significant drop for the author.

It’s pretty easy to see how this might simply be a data-entry mistake. Either way, I feel compelled to alert writers might have been unagented when they signed contracts with Egmont and, thus, probably didn’t catch this accounting error—especially if they are unfamiliar with deciphering royalty statements.

It is also possible that a fair amount of literary agents have also missed it—especially if they haven’t yet audited the Lerner statements.

So former Egmont authors, check your contract, and then check your royalty statements. Make sure you’re getting paid everything you’re contractually owed!

Photo Credit: Ano Lobb

What Is Your Magic Number?

All aspiring writers want their magic number to be one.

The first novel a writer ever wrote is perfect from conception.

The first novel lands a literary agent.

The first novel is so awesome, it immediately sells at auction.

The first novel is published to great fanfare and much commercial success.

The dream-come-true of overnight success. Well, I’d like to tell you something about that. Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, overnight-success stories are fiction. Most of these stories don’t divulge that the author ghostwrote ten novels for other people, or wrote three of their own novels that are tucked away because the author was working on craft.

In real life, what is the magic number—the number of novels written before a writer gets picked up by an agent, sold, and published?

I’ll tell you right now, it’s not one. If you poll a large number of authors and ask them how many novels they wrote before their first one sold, and then if you average the numbers they give you, my sense is that you will land right around four.

One of the truths I highlight at writers conferences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a later, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just completed your first novel, awesome. Celebrate this huge achievement. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you independently publish it and it doesn’t get much traction.

Keep on writing. Your magic number might be two or six or ten. My guess is that if you are passionately writing with ten novels under your belt, success is just around the corner.

Photo Credit: Andy Maguire

Why It’s Dangerous To Think That “Diverse Books” is the Latest Hot Trend

Just recently, PW published an article in which agents shared their thoughts on children’s books and YA trends. Although I’m quite tickled that so many agents are seeing lots of submissions featuring diverse characters, it’s dangerous to consider diversity the latest YA trend.

I’m sure I’m not the only agent who can say they’ve been repping diverse authors/books since day one. It certainly didn’t take a trend for me to sign those books and authors (for example, Kelly Parra’s awesome MTV Book Graffiti Girl in 2007, Kim Reid’s memoir No Place Safe in 2007, and Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry in 2008). But I can say this: unequivocally, before #WeNeedDiverseBooks became a rallying cry in April 2014, selling in a diverse author/book was tons harder to do. I have my submission logs to prove it. It often took me about 12 to 16 months of grim determination to find a diverse book a home.

If diversity is now hot enough to make the selling-in part a lot of easier, trust me, I’m all for it. Yay! Finally! But I absolutely do not want diversity to be considered a trend in young-adult literature, and here is why: If something is a trend, then it can go out of fashion just as quickly as it came in. And quite frankly, that would be a travesty.

The blunt truth is that selling a diverse book is a perfectly normal thing to do in publishing. So my rallying cry? Agents, new and old, even when diverse books become harder to sell, as they inevitably will (in publishing, trends of every kind have always come and gone), keep on keeping on.

Diversity is not a trend. It’s simply here to stay. This is the new normal.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Alkaisi

Why I Can’t Tweet My Manuscript Wish List

If you’re a writer on Twitter, you probably know that #MSWL is a popular hashtag. It’s how lots of agents and editors broadcast their submission wish lists.

I love it! But I can say with complete certainty that I’ll never post a #MSWL list. Why? Simply because I honestly don’t know what I’m looking for until I start reading it.

Case in point: When I read Stacey Lee’s UNDER A PAINTED SKY in manuscript form, never in a million years would I have posted to #MSWL that I was looking for a young-adult novel set in the American West, with two female protagonists—one Chinese, one African American—on the run and cross-dressing as boys to disguise themselves.

Yeah. I don’t think that would have come up.

But the minute I started reading, I knew I had to have that book. And thank goodness Putnam Children’s agreed with me.

So here’s the plain, honest truth: I have no idea what I’m looking for until the voice of a story grabs hold of me and doesn’t let go.

Just recently, I sold two science-fiction novels—DARE MIGHTY THINGS and THE BLACK HOLE OF BROKEN THINGS. Both, oddly, feature a competition at the heart of the story.

Ha! If you’d asked me whether competition stories were on my wish list, I probably would have said no. Popularity of The Hunger Games and all.

But once Emmett got a hold of me in THE BLACK HOLE OF BROKEN THINGS, I was 100% in. And in DARE MIGHTY THINGS, once Cassie Dhatri convinced me that competing for the opportunity to be an astronaut was cooler than competing for a prince and a kingdom, my inner geek girl squealed with delight. I was in.

So keep that in mind when you ask an agent, “What are you looking for?” If they have a ready answer, take it with a grain of salt. Rarely do we find exactly what we are looking for.

As the Rolling Stones would say, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”

Photo Credit: Hey Paul Studios

Writer Conference Pitch Pro Tips

It’s springtime! That means the Writer Conference season is upon us. And you know what that means, pitch appoints with agents and editors.

I do think yoga breathing exercises are essential to do pre-pitch so you might want to brush up with some practice before you go.

And just in case you’d like a few more tips to help you through, I put together my quick and dirty list:

1. For a 10-minute pitch appointment, plan to spend about 2 minutes talking about your book and 8 minutes interacting with the agent.

2. Nail your pitch in two succinct sentences. Three at most. If you can’t do that, you’ll be in trouble during your pitch.

3. Include one thing about yourself that will make you memorable (but in a good way, LOL). Maybe you have an interesting job that plays a factor in what you write. A funny conference story that is safe to share. A hobby passion that is interesting.

4.. Be prepared to talk about what inspired you. What made you excited to write this book?

5. Come intending to pitch only one book. If, however, the agent asks what else you’ve written or what you’re working on, be prepared to answer that question.

6. Know that this pitch appointment is not a make or break it moment. Not for you as a writer, not for your career, and not for your book; it all comes down to the quality of your writing.

The pitch is simply one stepping stone to getting you read. And if it doesn’t go well, plenty of opportunities to simply query agents the old-fashion way through email. Plenty of authors landed their agent doing just that.

Last but not least, smile and breathe. Most agents and editors are lovely people and they want you to succeed in the pitch appointment.

Scout’s honor!

Pic Credit: Dan Govan

#1 Reason We Requested Only 216 Sample Materials In 2015

At the beginning of 2015, I implemented new submissions guidelines. Instead of reading queries and then requesting sample pages, I now request that authors include the first ten pages of their manuscript along with their query letters.

What a difference! Instead of reading only 45 full manuscripts (like I did in 2014), I read 87 full manuscripts in 2015, plus 129 sample pages, and although many of these projects weren’t right for me, they did end up being right for another agent.

Now, having tried this new submissions process for a year, I can definitely identify some pros and cons.

PRO: I’m guessing writers probably love it. It gives them a chance to wow me with some opening pages, whereas before, if they didn’t perfectly nail the query letter, they might have been out of luck.

CON: Sometimes it takes me weeks longer to respond to queries than I would like. If I know I have to read some pages with it, I can’t just breeze in and get it done in 30 minutes. I need at least an hour to read the sample pages attached.

PRO: I’ve learned that some writers can nail the query letter, but their actual pages are not quite ready for an agent to read. And I can decipher this pretty quickly. This allows me to ask for full manuscripts of novels that are ready.

CON: It’s more pressure for the writer to really nail those opening pages.

PRO: The number of novels I read all the way to the end went up in 2015. It’s pretty rare for an agent to read an entire manuscript if they know early on that the project isn’t for them. I actually read many more novels to the conclusion before making a decision about offering representation.

CON: Man, I was a bit slow in getting back to some writers. I had several manuscripts for an embarrassingly long period of time.

INTERESTING TIDBIT: When I do ask for a full, I almost always make my decision on whether it’s right for me within the first 60 pages.

2015 End-Of-Year Stats!

It’s that magic time of year when I tally up the numbers and share Kristin’s Yearly Stats! Apologies for being so slow to get this posted.

37  :  total number of New York Times bestsellers (up from 33 total in 2014)

51  :  books released in 2015 (22 print releases, 9 reprints, and 21 digital releases)

3  :  new clients, two of whom sold at auction for six figures. One deal is public, the other is not yet announced. The third client is going on submission next month!

29,000+  :  estimated number of queries read and responded to

87  :  full manuscripts requested and read (up from 45 last year)

129  :  number of sample pages requested and read (down from 856 last year. See my January Newsletter column Think Like An Agent below to learn why we requested far fewer sample pages this year than we have in years past.)

2  :  number of projects currently on submission

71  :  foreign-rights deals done (down from 99 last year, mainly because I only took on one client in 2014), 14 in Asia, 3 in Brazil, 3 in Mexico/Latin America, and 51 in Europe

4  :  TV and major motion picture deals

46  :  number of print runs for my longest-selling title, which is Jamie Ford’s HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET—which originally published in 2009. Twelve for the hardcover version, 34 for the paperback—four of which occurred in 2015! Crazy for a title to still be getting reprints after six years.

8  :  conferences attended (which includes Bologna Book Fair, London, BEA, and Frankfurt Book Fair)

3 million+  :  copies in print/sold for my bestselling long-running series this year

2.5 million+  :  copies in print/sold for my bestselling individual title

3.5 million+  :  copies sold for my bestselling hybrid author

Millions and Millions  :  ebooks sold for four of my bestselling indie-publishing-only authors. I can’t even track anymore.

100  :  physical holiday cards sent

539  :  electronic holiday cards sent

Not telling it’s so embarrassing  :  number of eggnog chai lattes consumed during November and December

Lots  :  of late nights reading on my living-room chaise with Chutney

All  :  great days loving my job!

Happy New Year!

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