Pub Rants

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

Category: Query Letters

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?

Poppycock.

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


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.


Sending A Rejection Email Is Sometimes The Worst Thing Ever

Last week, I just had to share on Facebook and Twitter an article I saw in Publishers Weekly called “Trying To Find A Literary Agent Is the Worst Thing Ever.”

I had a sneaking suspicion that it would ring true for a lot of aspiring writers. With over 7,000 people viewing the post on FB, I guess I was right!

But here is a little tidbit I bet most writers don’t know. Sometimes being a literary agent is the worst thing ever. Agents are in this biz because we love books, admire writers, and want to make dreams come true. Sending out a rejection is none of the above. I really don’t want to be in the business of crushing dreams.

Crushing dreams truly sounds like the worst job ever.

When I sell a debut author, a first-time writer finally realizing his or her dream, that is the biggest high. I’ll be giddy for weeks after because I just helped fulfill someone’s long-held dream. How awesome is that?

In 2015, I had the pleasure of selling two debut authors. Not only that, but each project sold at auction for an amount that could reasonably entice the debut author to quit his or her day job. Writing as your full time job—talk about ultimate wish fulfillment!

But trust me when I say that sometimes being a literary agent is the worst thing ever. The majority of us don’t sit in our office chuckling maniacally with glee at every rejection we send. The truth is that I hate sending rejection letters. And two of my former assistants ultimately moved on to different jobs because they, too, hated having to say no.

Some days it’s truly the worst thing ever. I see many a worthy project that I simply can’t take on. Every new client is a big-time investment because agenting—and agenting well—is a huge commitment.

I don’t expect a lot of sympathy from writers. But do know that I, for one, don’t take pleasure in hitting the send button for a rejection.

Photo Credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis


#querywin – An MG Novel Sparks Memory

This week I requested a full manuscript for a middle grade children’s novel. When I was reading, I was instantly captured by the voice of the narrator. So original. But I see good writing all the time.

Q: Do you want to know what tipped the balance and made me request the full manuscript?

Answer: As I was reading, it made me recall exactly the way I thought when I was that character’s age. And I had forgotten that I had felt that way when I was that age. Right there, that’s brilliant writing at work.

And that’s when you know the writer has nailed the MG voice as well as the MG character. As an agent, I’m compelled to ask for the full to give it a read. If you are writing for a middle grade audience, that is what you should capture on the page. And if you don’t, dig in and get back to work. You were that age once. Tap into the resource that is you.

Photo Credit: David Robert Bliwas (Creative Commons)


Anatomy of A Query Rejection

This June, I taught a query workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Lit Fest. Afterward, one participant approached and asked me to read a response letter she had received (not from me). She wanted to know if it was a “standard” rejection letter. I read it aloud and was a little chagrined to discover just how similar it was to the letter I had been using for years. I told her that yes, this was not a personal letter but a standard rejection. Two days later, I was chastised by an aspiring writer who said it was time for us to change our standard rejection letter. Obviously that poor person had received our letter multiple times.

But I took the chastisement to heart. It was time for a change. So I’m going to share with you, my newsletter readers, our standard rejection letter and explain why I chose the verbiage I did.

Dear INSERT WRITER’S NAME:

KN: I actually do input the writer’s name. This business is so impersonal (some agents don’t even respond at all if they aren’t interested in a query), but I always want writers to be acknowledged as human beings. Even though it takes longer to respond to queries.

Thank you so much for thinking of me for your query. I wish I could offer a more personalized response but on average, I receive 500+ email query letters a week.

KN: This is true. In fact, I receive way more than 500 queries a week. Recently I’ve been averaging about 100 to 150 email query letters a day. Don’t let these stats daunt you. If you are serious about your career, you’ll persevere. Know the odds, but give them only the weight of a side note. I have signed many a client after finding them in our query inbox.

Do know that every query letter and sample page is read, and even though your project is not right for me, it might be right for another agent so don’t give up!

KN: This is true. I actually read a lot of my own queries on a daily basis. However, when I travel or have a crazy day, Angie, Jamie, and Karrie jump in to help out. They have to. After just two days, the inbox grows unwieldy. I also really do mean the last line. I’ve passed on any number of queries for projects that weren’t right for me but that other agents loved and went on to represent and even sell. I can only champion what I feel passionate about. Not everything will be a good fit for me. 

I’m also sorry I have no agent recommendations to offer.

KN: I had to include this. We were receiving so many reply emails asking for a recommendation that it was taking too long to respond to every query twice. We had to preemptively make it clear that we could offer no more information. 

Good luck with all your publishing endeavors.

KN: Absolutely. My rejection letter to your query is only one little bump on your journey to becoming a published author. 

Sincerely,

Kristin Nelson


Agent Kristin not to be confused with Author Kristen

Q to the twitter and FB brain trust: Why in the world am I receiving queries addressed to Kristen Callihan?

When it first started happening, we all laughed and brushed it off as someone simply misreading the site and since Kristen’s client bio pops up first on the client page, the reader simply confused her name with mine.

But now it’s happening dozens of times a week. I have to think that the contact must simply be listed wrong on some site that references Nelson Literary Agency. I’d love to track it down and get it corrected if my blog readers have any info.

Kristen is greatly flattered that folks think she is a literary agent but she’s definitely not reading our query inbox and so has no reply to offer!


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