Pub Rants

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

Category: requesting material

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.

Special Treat: Rhiannon Thomas’s Original Query Letter for A WICKED THING

To celebrate just having spent the day in York with Rhiannon, here is her original query for A WICKED THING that landed me as her agent.

Dear Kristin Nelson:

One hundred years after falling asleep, Aurora wakes up to the kiss of a handsome prince and a broken kingdom that has been dreaming of her return. All the books say that she, and the kingdom, should be living happily ever after.

But her family are long dead. Her “true love” is a stranger. And her whole life has been planned out by strangers while she slept. Aurora wants space to make her own choices, but she cannot risk losing the favor of the prince or the people and ending up penniless, homeless and, worst of all, alone. With rebellion stirring in the backstreets of the city and everyone expecting Aurora’s promised goodness to save them, she must marry the prince and play the sweet, smiling savior that everyone expects, or the kingdom will tear itself — and Aurora — apart.

When Aurora befriends a young rebel, she begins to doubt that the kingdom deserves saving. As the rebellion begins in force, and her wedding day hurtles ever closer, Aurora must decide whether she is willing to sacrifice her freedom to save this new world from burning, or whether she should be the one to light the flame.

AFTER is a young adult fantasy that will appeal to fans of Malinda Lo and Gail Carson Levine. It is complete at 70,000 words.

I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in English Literature in 2011 and work as a freelance writer and academic editor. AFTER is my first novel.

I am submitting this novel for your consideration because I read that you love fantasy YA and are a fan of Malinda Lo’s Ash, which is also one of my all-time favorite books.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Rhiannon Thomas

What did I like about her query pitch? First off, it’s very well written. Even the pitch has a narrative voice to it. But a couple more things:

* I love the turning-on-its-head opening premise of the first sentence. She should be living happily ever after means she probably won’t be. I want to find out why.

* I’ve never seen a Sleeping Beauty retelling where the princess wakes up 100 years later. Wow. She might as well be on another planet. Everything she knows is dead and long gone. I can’t imagine what that would be like. This story is going to be intriguing on that aspect alone.

* The pitch is wonderfully written and the conflict is clear. Should she marry the prince? Is that truly her destiny or what is best for her people?

* The author comparisons used are apt for this work.

It’s a shoo-in for me to ask for sample pages.

#NLAquerytip #7

FACT: If you are allowed to submit opening pages along with your email query pitch letter, including the prologue pages will kill your query 99.9% of the time and agents won’t ask for sample pages.

Here’s why:

Most writers use the prologue for the wrong purpose.

* Prologues are written in a different narrative voice than the rest of the novel so do not represent an accurate sample of the writer’s voice for the story. (And usually the voice in prologues are the easy-to-do-poorly distant omniscient third person POV).

* Prologues given are usually the back story for the novel and writers use it as a “crutch” to get started. If you are a writer at the top of your game, you won’t need it.

* Prologues are used as world-building so the reader can understand the world before diving into the story. Once again, if you are a writer at the top of your game, you won’t need it. You’ll build in the world within your opening chapter.

I’ve blogged ad nauseum about this topic so check the side bar archives on “passing on sample pages” and “beginning writer mistakes” for more in-depth details.

#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.

Special Treat: Stacey Lee’s Original Query for UNDER A PAINTED SKY

Happy Release Day Stacey Lee! UNDER A PAINTED SKY is now in bookstores.

Since I’ve been doing nothing but blogging about queries for the last week, what better way to celebrate the release of her debut novel than to share Stacey’s original query letter (with permission of course!)

Dear Ms. Nelson,

I am seeking representation for my 77K-word YA historical romance novel, GOLDEN BOYS.  Arthur Levine selected GOLDEN BOYS for the 2012 Golden Gate Award at the recently held SCBWI Asilomar Conference. GOLDEN BOYS is also a finalist in the Chicago North Romance Writers of America Fire and Ice Contest, results to be announced in April.

When fifteen-year-old orphan Samantha Young kills the richest man in Missouri in self-defense, she disguises herself as a boy and flees to the unknown frontier.  She knows the law in 1849 will not side with the daughter of a Chinaman. Along with a runaway slave, also disguised as a boy, “Sammy” joins a band of young cowboys headed for the California gold rush.

The trail poses far more hazards than the demure violinist imagined, not just from pursuing lawmen, but from Sammy’s own heart when she falls in love with one of the cowboys, West Pepper, who doesn’t know she’s a girl.  Sammy can’t reveal her true identity for fear of losing the cowboys’ protection.  But when West’s confusion over his feelings threatens to tear them apart, Sammy has to choose between her love for West and her own survival.

I wrote GOLDEN BOYS because I often wondered how a Chinese girl born in the U.S. during its expansion west would have fared.  My great great grandfather was one of the first Chinese to come to California at the time of the gold rush.

Thank you so much for your consideration,

Stacey H. Lee

So what inspired me to request sample pages? The terrific writing and the sheer originality of the premise. A Chinese girl violinist on the run via the Oregon Trail? I’m in. To me, it was a story that needed to be told and when I fell in love with the manuscript, I offered representation.

It certainly wasn’t because cross-dressing young adult historical westerns were all the rage in 2013. Talk about swimming against the current trends then….

The novel, after several revisions, transformed away from the historical romance to an enduring story of Sammy and Andy’s deepening friendship. And that is the story of UNDER A PAINTED SKY that readers get to enjoy starting today.

Kristin’s Original Pitch Letter to Editors – Under A Painted Sky


And as further celebration, my original pitch letter to editors when this work was on submission. A couple of things to note:

1) As my letter reveals, UNDER A PAINTED SKY was not the original title. We have Stacey’s estimable editor Shauna to thank for that! It was a great suggestion and way more evocative than Golden Boys. LOL Titles can be tough. As an agent, I either come up with a terrific one right away for the submit or it doesn’t happen until after the book is sold etc. But editors trust me so I know they’ll read the manuscript even if the title isn’t 100% golden. Pun intended.

2) This novel has received a lot of accolades and two STARRED reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Over the last two weeks,  several editors have reached out to me with congratulations and a request for me to keep them in mind for future stories like this. Given how wonderfully this title is coming out of the gate, it’s easy to assume this might have been a slam dunk of a sale when on submission.

It was not.

Putnam really took a chance and with Shauna’s (and Jen Besser’s) wonderful editorial guidance and vision, Stacey worked hard to perfect the story of Sammy and Andy for the novel you get to read today. My fingers are crossed that this is a sleeper hit in the making.



It was so lovely to see you while I was in New York. As promised after BEA, I’m sending along GOLDEN BOYS by Stacey Lee, a  young adult historical western a la True Grit.

After I had offered rep and Stacey accepted, I dug in to do the slow read. I was worried that my lack of sleep caused by staying up to read the manuscript had impaired by judgment when offering rep. *grin*

Lucky for me, it was just as good, if not better, than the first time I read it! I love love love it! Get ready to hold on to your saddle because I think you are going to love it as much as I do.

After a suspicious fire burns down her father’s dry goods store with him in it, newly orphaned Young San-Li, who goes by Samantha Young, confronts the landlord she suspects of setting the fire. When she accidentally kills him in self-defense, her only option is to hit the Oregon Trail. She knows the law in 1849 will not side with the daughter of a Chinaman.

With a whip-smart runaway house slave at her side, “Sammy” and “Andy” disguise themselves as boys and join a band of young seasoned cowboys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy must evade bounty hunters and hunt down Mr. Trask, the man entrusted with her dead mother’s treasured jade bracelet. When she also falls for West Pepper, a cowboy with no tolerance for greenhorn boys let alone girls, Sammy is convinced that the trail poses more hazards than a demure violinist can handle. 

When the wild West doesn’t prove big enough to hide her, Sammy must choose–avenge her father, forsake the memory of her mother, or embrace a new identity forged in the frontier and forever lose her history. 

Stacey Lee wrote her debut novel GOLDEN BOYS because her great great grandfather was one of the first Chinese to come to California at the time of the gold rush. She wondered how a Chinese girl born in the U.S. during its expansion west would have fared.  This novel won the 2012 Golden Gate award at SCBWI Asilomar Conference. This work is also a finalist in the Chicago North Romance Writers of America Fire and Ice Contest.


All Best,


#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.

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