Pub Rants

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

Category: passing on sample pages

Perils of Waking Character Openings – Take 2

Q: Why does the opening character awakening scene of the HUNGER GAMES work when 99.9% of slush pile opening pages do not?

Wowza. With over 7000 people reached on Facebook and untold number of Twitter shares, I obviously hit some kind of nerve. We should entitle these last two Pub Rants blog entries: The Perils of Writing About Novel Openings with Characters Awakening.

So let’s talk about this some more.

I spotted a lot of comments where writers mentioned the opening of the HUNGER GAMES. Fair enough. So let’s take a look at that first paragraph and analyze why that waking up character opening works and 99.9% of what agents are seeing in the slush pile doesn’t.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.  (Copyright: Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games, Scholastic Press 2010)

1) Opening 2 sentences. The importance is not on the character awakening but to alert the reader to what is different from normal.

2) Third sentence. We know Prim is a child and that it’s fairly normal for her to have bad dreams. Right away, in the hands of the master writer, even though we as readers don’t know much else about the characters etc., we know that whatever their life is, easy it is not.

3) The reason for the bad dream. The Reaping. I don’t know about you but I finished the first paragraph with an instant question that I had to know more about. What is the reaping? And why would it cause a child to find comfort with her mother when normally she wouldn’t? It can’t be good. I’m compelled to read on.

So trust me when I tell you that the majority of character waking up novel openings we are seeing in the slush pile do not remotely achieve the narrative momentum achieved in just 5 sentences shown above. The opening scenes we are seeing is literally about a character waking up and not much else. Sometimes they’ll then go to the bathroom to look in the mirror (so as to describe what the character looks like to the reader).

I’m not pointing this out to ridicule beginning writers who may recognize they’ve done this. I’m pointing it out because it’s less about the action (waking up) then about the purpose for starting the novel there. Most slush pile submissions with this construct are not using the awakening character for a compelling purpose.

And thus why agents pass on sample pages with this construct 99.9% of the time.

And here are a couple of other things new writers should keep in mind:

1) Already established authors can get away with an opening that most beginning writers can’t. Why? Because their agent and editor already trust them as writers. Once that trust is earned, you can play with all kinds of constructs or break all kinds of rules and publishing will even embrace you for it.

2) Established authors are not held to the same rules as new writers. Fair? No. But it’s the bald truth. Established authors can dump back story, input too much exposition, or do other lazy writing tactics and their fans will simply forgive them.

If you are first-timer trying to break in, the length of forgiveness is short indeed.

Photo Credit: Vic

The Perils of Waking Characters

OBSERVATION: Beginning your novel with the main protagonist waking up in bed will have agents passing on the material 99.9% of the time.

Here’s why:

It’s an opening we see way too often (not sure why) and 99% of the time, this opening simply is not the best place to launch your story.

1) In general, this action in an opening scene is static (read: uninteresting). It’s a struggle to make it interesting enough to merit beginning your novel here.

2) I’m going to venture a guess that a lot of newer writers don’t know where to begin their story so starting here seems like a safe place.

3) Just trust me on this, there is a better place to begin your awesome story. My suggestion? Connect back to what made you excited to write this novel in the first place and see if you can’t tap into that energy and channel it into your opening scene. Chances are good, you won’t then choose to begin your story with your main character waking up.

And LOL, wouldn’t this make a fun writing challenge? Have already successful, established authors participate and make it a requirement that their story has to begin with character awakening. Could be hilarious. Could be the first time we see a kick-ass opening with this construct.

Photo Credit: James Theophane, Creative Commons

#NLAquerytip #9

Question: Why can’t agents simply skip the query pitch altogether and read the sample pages the author includes with the letter?

Here’s why:

One blog reader has called my series of query tip blog postings as a “much needed foot to the groin.” That certainly creates a visual! What they are really trying to say is that I’m not pulling the punch here. I’m outlining the bald truth about the query process.

At conferences when I’m teaching my query workshop, participants will often lament about how difficult it is to write the one page query letter. A hundred times harder than writing the novel itself.

Why can’t agents simply skip the query pitch altogether and read the sample pages I’m including with the letter?

The answer? Because all agents get far too many queries in any given day. Since I began blogging regularly again on Pub rants and using Twitter (egad!), my per day incoming email queries have more than doubled from 40 to 50 a day to over a hundred.

That’s crazy! And here’s the truth of it. In all the years of agenting, I’ve discovered that this is true:  mediocre query pitches are rarely supported by really excellent opening pages of a novel. I’ve tested this theory numerous times because I’m an optimist. I’ll sometimes give a mediocre query pitch the benefit of the doubt and I’ll pop down to the pages to give it a read. It’s a pass for me every time.

So your query letter is the place to show off your talent in the short form first. Convince me to read the pages you’re including.

#NLAquerytip #8

FACT: Spending time perfecting your novel’s pitch in your query letter is the gift that will keep on giving for the life of your novel.

Here’s why:

In publishing, simply put, a novel’s pitch is not just used once.

1) Writer creates the pitch for the query letter to get agent/editor attention.

2) Agent signs author, uses the pitch for Agent’s submission letter (or uses it as a base to to create a submit-oriented pitch for editors).

3) Editor loves the pitch, asks for the manuscript, reads it, loves it and now needs to get enthusiastic second reads. Editor will use the author/agent’s pitch to get second reads on board.

4) Second reads love it too. Editor now has to go to editorial board to pitch the novel to decision makers. You guessed it! Editor will use the pitch to generate excitement in this meeting so as to get permission and funding to buy it.

5) Editor buys novel and readies it for publication. The pitch is then shared with the catalog/jacket copy department to write the copy that will go on the book jacket or online for description of the novel.

6) Editor heads to Sales Conference with the pitch in hand. Time to get all the sales reps excited who are going sell-in the title to booksellers & libraries to generate the pre-orders that determine the initial print run and marketing dollars that will be spent on the book.

7) Sales reps hit the road. They use the pitch to get booksellers to read the Advanced Reading Copy (of which they get hundreds in any sell-in period).

8) Booksellers love it. Order copies for their stores. Book gets published and now booksellers will use the pitch to hand-sell to customers.

I think you get the picture. The pitch you are creating in your query letter is the second most important asset for your novel and directly impacts the success of your career. And just in case you are wondering, writing a great book is the number one most important asset.

No pressure or anything. LOL.

#NLAquerytip #6

Fact: If you have to defend that your novel is over 200,000 words in your query letter, then you are not pitching your story from a place of strength. And agents are more likely to pass.

Here’s why:

Even though a writer might insist that the length is necessary for the story, rarely is this true. In fact the hefty manuscript getting picked up and sold for a debut author is so rare and unusual, industry folks make note and remember the titles (i.e. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).

In probably 99% of the cases, a super long manuscript usually signals that a beginning debut writer has not mastered pacing. Or, that the writer has not learned self-editing. This is even more true when we talk about the fantasy genre. Lots of fantasy authors will cite George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones in the query letterA great example certainly, but that wasn’t George’s debut project. Most established and successful fantasy writers begin with a normal length debut (around 100,000 words with some room on either side of that).

And yes, you can certainly cite the extraordinary instance of Patrick Rothfuss and The Name of the Wind. But he’s an exception, not the norm.

So my advice? If you have a long manuscript and you truly believe it is the “one in a thousand” and is the appropriate length, I wouldn’t cite your word count in the query and instead focus on writing the most incredible pitch you can.

After all, if an agent/editor begins reading and is blown away by the mastery, we won’t care a fig about word count. We’ll believe. But you have to get a request for the pages first.

#NLAquerytip #5

Fact: A really terrific concept in your query won’t save you if the letter itself is poorly written.

Think of the query letter as a special training ground. A pitch for your novel is really hard to write. Trust me, we agents understand that, which is why most of us aren’t also writers. I’m not crazy enough to subject myself to that torture. LOL.

But you’ve chosen to be a writer so we expect you to perfect every aspect of your craft–and that most certainly includes the pitch in a query letter. It’s your first opportunity to show just how good a writer you are by nailing the pitch.

So if you don’t, agents will simply have the expectation that you are still a beginner and not quite ready for an agent to read your material. Hence, why we pass on 99% of the email query letters sent to us.

#NLAquerytip #4

Fact: A really good title for a novel will catch an agent’s attention

And once that attention is caught, then the chances of the entire query letter being read is very high. The benefits of this is obvious. If an agent reads the entire email, the more likely it is that the agent will request sample pages.

I know I’ve requested pages simply because a title was so original and cool, I had to see if the writing stood up to the wonderful title premise.

Now if the writing doesn’t engage, a good title won’t keep the agent from rejecting the pages but as you all know, writers have to get a foot in the door first to even get the chance to wow agents with their craft. So anything that increases your chances for getting sample pages read is valuable.

Spend some time on this component of your novel. Do searches on Amazon and other venues to see how common it is, etc. Don’t just include a “throw-away” title. It certainly won’t help and it might actually harm.

#NLAquerytip #3

Fact: Clearly outlining in your query letter how your story fits in the market will encourage literary agents to read your entire email letter closely.

First off, what do I mean by “clearly outlining how your novel fits in the market”?  You can do this by:

* listing other titles that would be comparable to yours.

* adding a line that readers who enjoyed X title, Y title, and Z title would also like your story.

* clearly designating your novel’s correct genre or type of work.

Note: This doesn’t mean saying that you as a debut writer are spectacular or that you write better than “insert famous author name.”

That is going to be read as hubris and won’t be helpful in making your query letter stand out. In fact, I have a suspicion that positing so in the beginning of your letter will probably result in a quick rejection.

The three bullet points above, by contrast, spotlight your professional savvy and the fact you did your homework about the current market. This is a business and writers who demonstrate a clear understanding of that in their query letter will attract agent attention.

Professionalism always encourages me to read the entire letter–unless it’s very clear to me early in the pitch that the type of novel just isn’t what I represent. And I imagine that’s true for a lot of my colleagues.

#NLAquerytip #2

Fact: Literary Agents rarely read the entire query letter.

It’s simply not possible given the sheer volume most of us receive. I average about 100 email queries a day and these days, I actually do read the letters myself. If I’m buried, Angie will jump in and help out on my request (as I don’t want writers to have to wait too long for a reply), but it’s pretty much me doing the reading.

And I have maybe 30 minutes a day to give it. Which means getting through 100 queries or so in that time frame. You can do the math. That means approximately 30 seconds for each letter.

So most agents I know, me included, skip down to the pitch paragraph and read that portion first. If it grabs us, then we read the entire query letter.

In long query letters, sometimes it’s hard to actually find the novel pitch! Yet another reason why shorter query letters get better response from agents….


Fact:  Shorter query letters get a better request response from agents and editors.

Or to say this point in a different way: the longer your query letter, the more likely an agent or editor will pass on it and not request sample pages. Why? Because it shows you haven’t carefully crafted or honed your query pitch.

In query letters that are short in length, the writer has to make every word count. So the writer is showing a level of craft expertise nailing it succinctly.

So subscribe to the Twitter-verse approach to writing your query pitch. Okay, I’m going to give you more than 136 characters to nail the pitch but any pitch paragraph should not be more than 5 or 7 sentences long. That’s it. (And no cheating and subscribing to the Faulkner method of making a whole sentence last an entire page length).

Less is more!

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