Pub Rants

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

Category: Writing As A Career

Money Talk: Where Does Your Commission Go?

By Danielle Burby

In this column, we discuss everything authors should know when it comes to landing an agent and navigating the complexities of the publishing industry. You know how to query and what to ask when an agent offers you representation, but here’s a slightly more sensitive topic: commissions.

Agenting is a sales job, which means your agent doesn’t get paid for their work on your book until you get paid. An agent takes on a project and invests their time, energy, and resources with the hope that the project will sell to a publisher. If the project doesn’t sell, the agent doesn’t doesn’t get paid. (If an agent ever asks you to pay a fee for their services, walk away. They are not a real agent.) The industry standard commission rate is 15% for domestic sales (with slightly different rates for various ancillary rights). Once a book has sold and the contract is fully executed, the publisher schedules an EFT or writes a check to the agency, and the agency retains 15% and sends the author a check for the remaining 85%. It may never occur to an author to wonder what happens to the 15% commission they just paid.

There’s no true industry standard in the arrangement between agents and agencies surrounding that 15% commission. Every agency has a slightly different way of approaching this matter, but a general rule of thumb is that the agent gets some of the money and the agency gets some of the money. Essentially, you are paying the agent directly for his or her work and you are also paying the agency to continue growing, investing in support staff, and providing you with the proper services.

Possible splits:

  • A very typical split between agent and agency is 50% of the commission (or, in other words, 7.5% of the entire deal). For example, if your book sells for $50,000, the total 15% commission payment is $7,500. It is reasonable to expect that $3,750 of that will go to your agent.
  • Many agents have built-in escalators (much like authors), incentivizing them to hit certain sales goals by bumping up commission percentages.
  • Your agent may get a higher percentage of the split (60%-70%) if the agency he or she works for doesn’t provide office space or support staff.
  • It is rare, but not unheard of, for agencies to pay their employees below 50% of that 15% commission.

Different ways of paying agents:

  • Commission only. Agents on a commission-only arrangement are paid when their authors get paid. Payments here are intermittent. Many commission-only agents work side jobs until they are able to build their list to a point where they have a steady, comfortable income.
  • Salary for services to agency plus commission. Many agents build their client lists while simultaneously serving in salaried support-staff roles for an agency (assistant work, subsidiary rights work, etc.) until they are financially ready to switch over to commission only.
  • Draw. A draw is an advance on future earnings, much like publishing houses pay to authors. Agents on a draw are paid a fixed amount of money annually that they are then expected to match (and hopefully surpass) in sales. Once they have earned back the draw, they begin to receive commissions. This provides an agent with a level of financial security and stability, allowing them to agent full time, though some agents are hesitant to accept a draw because the stakes are higher if sales goals aren’t met.
  • Salary. Some agencies pay agents a salary in exchange for the entire commission. In this case, agents often make a very comfortable salary and receive an annual bonus if they hit very high sales goals.

Ultimately, it is an agent’s right to keep his or her financial agreement with an employer private, and I wouldn’t recommend asking about it on The Call or in conversation. That said, arming yourself with an awareness that these different arrangements are out there is important for you as an author. And, knowing them, you may be able to read between the lines to figure out how it works for your agent.

This is important because, the truth is, how your agent is paid does impact you. If your agent isn’t receiving appropriate commission percentages, he or she may change agencies. If an agency isn’t investing their own percentage in support staff and company growth (and therefore more services for you), it is something to be aware of because, chances are, your agent is doing extra work. In the first several years of agenting, the money comes in slowly, unpredictably, and often in small sums. If an agent is just starting out and is being paid commission only, it can be very difficult for that agent to pay the rent and bills. Publishing is a very tough business with a high burnout rate. The way agencies pay their agents absolutely contributes to an agent’s ability to stick it out.

Every agent has to build from somewhere, but some agencies offer their employees more support in that arena than others. While your agent has no control over this and shouldn’t be penalized for, say, not being in a position to work full time, it is something you want to think about. Consider it in the same way you’d weigh whether you want an editorial agent, a boutique agency, or an agent with a large vs. small client list. As always, the more you know about the way publishing works, the better!


9 Story Openings To Avoid, Part 8

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click
here.
For Part 3, click
here.
For Part 4, click
here.
For Part 5, click
here.
For Part 6, click
here.
For Part 7, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#8) Your novel opens with bodily functions or the weather. 

On average, we receive about 100 queries a day. I popped into our inbox right before writing this article, and sure enough, out of the last 100 submissions or so, about a dozen sample pages opened with either bodily functions or weather.

Before we take a closer look, here’s a quick reminder: This article series is not intended to be a list of openings to never, ever, ever, ever write. Any type of opening can be well executed. We just want to highlight that there are several types of openings that aspiring writers tend to unknowingly overuse, and because we see these openings over and over again, even the well-written ones feel stale. If you want to stand out and be fresh and unique, then this article series is for you! We want to help you steer clear of stale openings…and bodily functions and observations of the weather both fit that bill.

Bodily functions frequently spotted in openings include:

  • Vomiting – This is the #1 culprit: 17 submissions received in the last 6 days opened with vomit in one form or another.
  • Peeing – Pee scenes often follow a character-waking-up scene. They are often but not always written by men, about male characters, and some go into weirdly literary detail, employing such words as glittering, shiny, golden, arc, stream, etc. (Why? Why???)
  • Bleeding/oozing wounds – This is typically either an attempt to (a) establish immediate physical conflict/peril or (b) hook us with shock value or gore porn. If the latter, then hashtag nope.
  • Spitting – Like vomiting, spitting is a piece of choreography that seems to have become a substitute for emotion. While vomiting is supposed to show-don’t-tell readers that a character is very upset, spitting is supposed to show-don’t-tell readers that a character is experiencing disdain or disgust. I think. (Sometimes it’s OK to tell. We promise.)
  • Crying/nose blowing – Like bleeding, this is typically an attempt to establish immediate conflict/peril, but of the emotional rather than physical kind.
  • Farting – Farts sometimes show up literally, and sometimes as idioms, like Billy was as popular as a fart in church. Note that if you write humorous books for little boys, then farting should definitely be part of your repertoire.
  • Masturbating – Seriously. We just read a masturbation opening this morning, within five minutes of reading submissions.

So what is the issue here? Besides the fact that bodily functions are often TM(G)I—Too Much Gross Information—and, therefore, a reading turn-off, they often signal that the writer is working too hard to be edgy or to convey an immediate conflict, yet the conflict is without context because the story hasn’t been set up yet. On one end of the spectrum is stuff I’d rather not know upon first meeting your character; on the other end of the spectrum, bodily functions without context generally don’t invoke emotion in the reader.

It bears mentioning that genre matters. If you write mysteries or thrillers, then your readers expect a dead body or two—usually killed in new, interesting, sick, twisted ways. So sick and twisted that someone in your book might vomit. Give your readers what they want! But think about whether your detective hero really needs to wake up and release a glittering, golden arc of pee into the toilet, blow his nose, and fart before he gets dressed and heads off to the crime scene.

As for starting with the weather, well, it’s certainly been done by many an esteemed author since the dawn of literature. No argument there. And yet therein lies the reason many aspiring writers continue to churn out weather openings. Certainly you can think of a more dynamic way to start a story! Start in scene, with a character doing something in a tense situation, and then layer in details about rain, sun, or approaching storms. As creative beings and literally the gods/goddesses of your own writing universes, we’re confident there are better openings within you.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: mslavick


5 Qs Authors Don’t Ask but Should When an Agent Offers Rep

In the last two weeks, we at NLA have offered representation to seven authors, most of whom received multiple offers. All agents are aggressively seeking new talent right now! It’s awesome to talk to savvy authors who have a list of good questions prepared for their initial conversations with prospective agents, questions like:

• What is your communication style?
• How would you describe your dream client?
• What is your editorial vision for my work?
• What would your submission strategy for this work be if you took it on?
• What happens if my project doesn’t sell?
• Are you open to me writing in different genres?
• Can I chat with a current client?

All these are questions you should ask; you definitely want your agent to be a good personality match and share your vision for your career. But you also want that agent to be your best advocate and protect your business interests in the publishing industry. With that in mind, here are five key questions authors should also be asking, but in general I never hear:

1) What is the average duration of a contract negotiation at your agency? At NLA, average time is three or four months, as we’ll stand firm on key clauses until a compromise is reached. We don’t rush it. If a publishing house has recently revamped its boilerplate contract, then that timeframe can more than double, as we’ll have to negotiate the boilerplate contract first, and then negotiate your specific deal.

2) Will I be involved in seeing the original offer and then the final offer from the Publisher? NLA always shares with our clients the details of the first offer and what we negotiated to create the final offer. Clients are always invited to participate in the process and weigh in.

3) Will I have a chance to review the original contract from the publisher as well as all the requested changes documentation, and then the master redline of the final contract I’ll be signing? Can you walk me through any contract clause that I might not understand? At NLA, we share all this documentation, whether clients want to read it or not, so that clients are 100% confident that their deal and contract have been fully negotiated. And I’ve spent many an hour on the phone or Skype, combing through contract particulars with clients to make sure they’re completely comfortable with what they’re signing. Most agencies simply forward on the final contract for signatures, and that’s it.

4) Do you regularly audit royalty statements? How much money has the agency recovered by doing so? At NLA, we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for our authors because we regularly catch errors when auditing their royalty statements. And we catch errors in almost every accounting period—that’s how frequently it happens.

5) How many non-agent support staff are at your agency? This is important, as it’s very hard for an agent to do all of the above, and do it well, without significant assistance from non-agent support staff. At NLA, we have three agents and a team of six in-house non-agent support staff to protect our clients. Most agencies have a lot of agents and very little, if any, support staff. The agents are expected to be independent silos and handle all of the above plus all agenting duties. It’s not possible to juggle all that without letting stuff fall through the cracks.

Bonus question to ask if you are feeling bold: What percentage of your clients make their living solely from writing? If you ask me this question, I can truthfully say that 95% of my clients earn their living as authors—meaning they earn enough money to support themselves without a secondary job or support from a partner.

Back in the crazy days of the late 2000s, there was a popular agent, active on social media, who landed a lot of clients, posted some sexy six-figure deals, and then disappeared. I ended up taking on a former client of this now defunct agent/agency and realized, to my horror, that the author had been signing boilerplate contracts with no negotiated changes. The agent hadn’t negotiated a thing! The author was new to the business and had no way of knowing the agent wasn’t doing the job. Even though that agent looked hot from the outside, s/he had actually done very little to protect the client’s interests.

You can make sure that doesn’t happen to you. This is your career. Ask the above 5 Qs. After all, these aren’t the sexy tasks, but they do affect an author’s bottom line. Don’t feel uncomfortable or worry that you might insult the agent. If an agent becomes defensive when asked legitimate questions, then chances are that agent isn’t right for you.

Stay smart, savvy, and shrewd. Check out my “What Makes a Good Agent” article series on Pub Rants. You are your own best advocate.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Chris Potter


Is Your Manuscript Ready? By Danielle Burby

You’ve done your research and know the basics of writing an excellent query letter, but what comes next? What happens when that query letter works and an agent requests your novel? At the end of the day, it all comes down to your manuscript. Are you and your manuscript ready for an agent? How do you know? The short answer: Ask yourself whether you’re treating this like a marathon or a sprint.

Once you’ve typed “The End,” you may be tempted to immediately go out and query every agent you can find, but keep in mind that, while it is a major accomplishment to finish writing a novel, even the most practiced authors need to take time to revise. The first draft is where the ideas form on the page, but it is only in subsequent revisions and rewrites that the actual story begins to emerge. Writing, like any other art, is a craft that takes skill and dedication. Keep in mind that you don’t have a deadline. There is all the time in the world for you to work and rework your novel until you have gotten it into the best shape you possibly can.

As you revise, remember that this is your world and you have full control over it. What a liberating superpower! Nothing in your novel is fixed in stone. This means you can have fun and play with everything from characterization to the rules of the world to the stakes and goals that drive the plot.

Some tips for revising:

  • Print out your draft and make notes in the margins to highlight moments that can be improved.
  • Map out the plot, point by point. Poke as many holes in the logic as possible. Re-map and revise.
  • Read the entire novel from start to finish several times, with a different focus each time—plot, character, language, copy editing.
  • Read out loud and listen to your words. Hearing can illuminate writer tics in need of eliminating or monotonous sentence structure. Revise with that in mind.
  • Share it with trusted readers who will push you even farther. If someone has a crazy suggestion, give it a shot! If it doesn’t work, at least you’ve tried it. Revise again. Repeat.

Whichever revision style you choose (and you can choose more than one!), your goal should be to make your book better, stronger, more powerful.

My biggest piece of advice to new authors is this:

  • Set the bar high and take the time needed to get to a masterful final draft.

Too often we get requests from agent-seeking writers asking for a chance to resubmit a now-revised manuscript. Occasionally we may say yes, but more often we have to say no because of time constraints. You might only have one shot at an agent read. Spend it wisely. Remember that each and every draft will make you better at what you do. Keep creating and writing and challenging yourself. Keep running this marathon.


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 7

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click
here.
For Part 3, click
here.
For Part 4, click
here.
For Part 5, click
here.
For Part 6, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#7) Your novel opens with pages of backstory or exposition instead of a scene created to kick off your novel. 

In the thousands and thousands of opening pages we’ve read over the years, we’ve discovered three problematic openers that fit this bill:

  1. Opening with a sentence or two of a scene, but then shifting into pages of backstory or exposition.
  2. Opening with a sentence or two of exposition or backstory, followed by the start of an actual scene.
  3. Opening with heavy exposition, backstory, or world building that goes on for pages without anchoring the reader to a character situated in the story’s narrative time and place.

This type of opening becomes a problem when authors feel the need to fully explain their world before officially beginning the story—they’re afraid that readers will be lost without all the background information. A good intention, but a master writer knows how to layer in her world building and backstory at the same time she is introducing her characters, setting, and whatever situational conflict will launch the story’s momentum.

When I come across a submission like this, I’ll skip ahead to see where—or if—the story actually begins; however, I’m already on notice. This type of false start makes it that much harder for the writer to win me back. You don’t want an agent looking for a reason to say no.

Angie here! Let’s look at some examples.

  • Opening with a sentence or two of a scene, but then shifting into pages of backstory or exposition.

Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations. Marge surveyed their work and gave a satisfied nod. They’d made great progress today.

Marge and her team had flown to Egypt six weeks prior. The university had finally managed to secure the funding for this dig, despite the dean’s oft-repeated assurances that the archeology department would never approve the sum Marge had requested. But over the summer, some anonymous donor had stepped forward and written a big, fat check. Marge couldn’t guess who the donor was, but she was too excited to care. She started calling her team and making travel arrangements…

This type of opening is often crafted by writers who’ve learned that it’s a best practice to start in scene. So they do. But the siren song of expository backstory is still too alluring, and they can’t resist. To see if you’ve fallen prey, check for past-perfect verbs in your opening scene (had managed, had requested, had stepped forward). If you see some, then—RED ALERT!—you’ve probably slipped into backstory.

Let’s look at another example:

  • Opening with a sentence or two of exposition or backstory, followed by the start of an actual scene.

Marge had learned two things during her seventeen years as a university professor. The first was never to take no for an answer, especially when it came from the dean during a conversation about funding. The second was never to question the motives of an anonymous donor who wanted to send you and your whole team to Egypt for three months on an exclusive dig. She was right about the first, but wrong about the second. She was about to find out just how wrong.

Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations…you know the rest.

This type of opening is often crafted by writers who want to provide an immediate insight into character before showing us that character in setting, motion, or conflict. Also note the prophetic “she was about to find out just how wrong.” As far as hooks go, this kind always feels a little too on-the-nose, like the writer is saying, Hey, isn’t that portentous and enticing? Most times, authors need to work a little harder than that to plant the hook that will keep readers genuinely intrigued.

To avoid this type of opening, recognize the difference between scene and exposition/backstory. Practice writing solely in scene. Only then, go back and layer in your exposition/backstory with subtle strokes that are relevant to the current scene.

Kristin here: Of course, like all the examples we’ve given in this article series, any opening can work in the hands of a master writer. My client Sherry Thomas is renowned for her ability to pull this off. Read the opening of her debut novel Private Arrangements to see how she breaks this rule but still manages to get away with it. Her masterful writing sweeps the reader away!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Angie Harms


What To Do If Your Books Are Popular In Iran?

The short answer is nothing. There actually isn’t much you can do.

Rarely discussed in publishing is the fact that certain countries don’t recognize or honor copyright law. Persian countries (including Iran and Iraq) are an excellent example of territories that don’t. Persian publishers will often translate popular novels and publish them in their countries without a license, and the author does not receive a dime as an advance or royalties.

Kind of shocking, isn’t it?

This situation has happened a number of times for my authors. We usually find out about unlicensed editions when an author receives fan mail or a lovely note from the translator. Even though the Persian publishers don’t feel much obligation to the author, we have found over the years that the translators actually do. And often they will reach out to the author and ask permission to do the translation—even though they know (and are quite apologetic) that the publisher has no plans to compensate the author in any way.

I have a special place in my heart for these morally centered translators.

So what can an author do when it becomes apparent that his or her books are being translated and published in countries that don’t honor copyright protection?

My answer is this. The author should offer to write a special foreword for the edition in exchange for a nominal fee. It’s my attempt to get the author at least some compensation. Yet so far no Iranian publisher has taken me up on this offer.

But I’m hopeful. Someday…

Photo Credit: Peta de Aztlan


Query Tip: Avoid the Checkbox Grocery List In The Pitch

Note from Kristin: Jamie is one of NLA’s first reader on queries. He reads hundreds a week so this was worth sharing.

By Jamie Persichetti

As a gay man, it’s always weird to read in query letter book pitches that a story “features LGBTQ+ characters” or “has diversity” like they are bonus content on the special edition BluRay, specs on a laptop with extra RAM, or items to check off a culturally aware grocery list.

I mean, cool! Keep the queer coming. Books need them. But you sound a bit… odd… if you phrase it like they are features. Just say someone is trans, or that he has a boyfriend. Or (and I know this is a hard one) don’t mention it at all if it’s not actually important to the core of the book.

I get it. Don’t write diverse characters and you’re a bad person. Write diverse characters and you do it wrong. It’s a double standard that is suffocating publishing right now. This is just how I felt in the moment.


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 6

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.
For Part 4, click here.
For Part 5, click here

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#6) Your novel opens with prose problems, such as flowery or overly descriptive verbiage.

This morning, while sipping my steaming hot and deliciously aromatic Mountain chai with creamy half and half and gazing out my window at the cerulean sky, I pondered on the inevitable curiosity borne of dissecting why working authors succumb to the passion of crafting overwrought prose.

Did you have trouble reading the above sentence? Did you read it twice to figure out what I was talking about? Did you wonder why I didn’t just say, “This morning, I thought about why writers use overly descriptive language”?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you know exactly why overwrought prose makes our list of openings to avoid.

So often we come across submissions in which writers are trying to play with language, but they’re often playing with it at the wrong time. If you just need to convey that a character smiled, then “He smiled” is far preferable to “His lips quirked up at the corners, his sudden smile lighting up his face in such a way that I knew he was happy” is overdone. But newer writers, still mastering craft, often make the mistake of using fancy words and “phrasey” sentence structure all throughout their work…and this slows a story down rather than moving it along.

He smiled.

Done.

The point is the smile, not how the character did it.

Expansion and Contraction

One thing to keep in mind as you revise your own writing is the concept of expansion and contraction. Bestselling writers know when to expand their prose and when to contract it. They expand when they want to slow readers down to ensure they take notice of something important to the development of character or plot. They contract when they need to keep things snappy and simple to keep readers interested as the story moves over points of low conflict or tension, or transitions from one turning point to the next.

Newer writers, on the other hand, tend to expand a little too much—a big reason such writers wrestle with high word counts. Learn (a) that contraction is a tool in your toolbox and (b) when you need to use it, and you’ll be well on your way!

So is there a time or a place for more elevated prose? Absolutely. But save it for scenes in which you need a certain type of prose to set a certain type of tone. Save it for a moment of gravity, to let the words shine.

Photo Credit: Thor


Can White Authors Write Characters of Color?

This question is sparking conversation in the adult-fiction world, but it seems to be front and center in the children’s realm. Attend any SCBWI regional or national meeting and this topic is sure to come up: Can a white author write a character of color?

The answer is yes. We live in a diverse world. In fact, in most contemporary settings, an all-white cast of characters would be odd, as it hardly reflects reality. So yes, a white author can write diverse cast.

However….

Before I discuss this further, I want to acknowledge two awesome movements that all writers need to be aware of:

  1. #ownvoices on Twitter
  2. WeNeedDiversebooks.org and #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter

Writers, if you haven’t spent any time listening in or participating in these Twitter conversations, I strongly recommend that you do. Even if you’re an experienced writer. Treat it like any other research you do to create and fully realized characters.

So let’s tackle my “however.” This endeavor is not to be taken lightly. Make your characters realistic and grounded, and avoid falling back on stereotypes. Instead of merely describing your characters’ skin color, build a realistic and complex backstory for each character: What past experiences related to their heritage have shaped their identities and worldviews, and how will those things affect the ways in which they think, behave, and interact with others during the course of your story? Research extensively. Engage sensitivity readers of the same background(s) as your character(s). Expect and listen to criticism.

And read, read, read. Here are a few articles to get you started. I’m no expert, and I’m still learning along with everyone else. But the authors on my client list are from a variety of backgrounds, and we all support diversity in literature.

Know that some readers, respectfully, will not read your book if you are a white author writing a novel which features a character of color. And you need to be 100% okay with that. It is a reader’s prerogative.

Finally, begin to engage in similar conversations related to writing characters of different genders (it ain’t just male and female, folks!), sexualities, and physical abilities. The depth and range of characters that you create for your novels is limited only by your willingness to step out of yourself and into the lives of those who are not like you!

Photo Credit: Sean McMenemy


9 Story Openings to Avoid: Part 5

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.
For Part 4, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#5) Your novel opens with running or other pulse-pounding action. 

If you are guilty of this one, don’t beat yourself up. We promise you’re not alone. Writers are told they need to start in medias res (literally “in the middle of things”) if they want to grab the reader from page one. Solid advice, but when it translates to action for action’s sake, therein lies the problem.

Just so we’re clear, we’re not suggesting that you nix every bit of action in your opening scene. The problem arises when an opening provides only action to the exclusion of:

  • All other narrative elements, like character, setting, voice, tone, and context. Without context, readers are left wondering, Why is this action happening? Who’s involved? What outcome should I be rooting for? Remember that confused readers might stick with you for a few pages, but if your opening scene introduces more questions than it answers, readers are likely to abandon your tale.
  • Structural relevance. Does the opening action sequence mirror, foreshadow, or lead logically into something that will happen later in the story—for instance, the inciting incident, midpoint reversal, climax, or resolution? If your opening action scene only exists to create excitement that you hope will hook a reader, then you might be in trouble.

The type of opening scene you write relies heavily on your genre. Action-forward openings tend to be more appropriate in commercial fiction, as opposed to literary fiction (which is more about artful language and thematic explorations of the human condition, so literary openings tend to provide immediate insight into a character or immersion into a setting). Genres like thrillers, military science fiction, and romantic suspense lend themselves to action-forward openings, but readers of cozy mysteries, contemporary romance, women’s fiction, and historical fiction expect to be thoroughly introduced to character, setting, and situational conflict when they encounter your first chapter. So consider genre and reader expectations as well as your novel’s overall structure when crafting your opening.

The final takeaway here is that in medias res is solid advice…if you take it to mean “start in the middle of action,” not “start in the middle of an action scene.” Action means (a) there’s a character on your “page stage,” (b) he or she is doing something other than merely thinking (see part 1 of this article series), and (c) he or she is in some sort of enticing predicament.

  • Maybe it’s a 70-year-old woman on her knees in the garden behind her house. It’s raining, and she’s up to her elbows in mud, desperately trying to bury something. Or dig something up.
  • Maybe it’s a scrawny middle-school-aged kid standing in the middle of the gym. The climbing rope hangs before him. His PE teacher stands to one side, arms crossed across his beefy chest, and his classmates encircle him, some cheering him on, others chanting insults.
  • Maybe it’s a married couple standing at the sink, washing dishes. The wife dries the last dish, while the husband calmly turns off the faucet and announces that he wants a divorce.

All of these story openings begin in medias res because they begin in the middle of a situation laden with dramatic tension. We don’t know the nature of that tension yet, but we will happily keep reading because (and this is the important part) each of these situations comes pre-packaged with an impending sense of What happens next? Yet none of these is an action scene.

In contrast, we see a lot of sample pages in our query inbox that start with a character running. An action scene. Sweat pouring. Lungs burning. Muscles cramping. Feet stumbling over rocks and tree roots. The sound of a pursuer’s footsteps ringing out in the darkness. These writers hope we’ll be just as breathless and scared as their characters are. But this type of opening lacks context (which means readers aren’t yet invested in your character’s plight). It’s an opening that’s tough to make fresh because we see it all the time. Plus, it can only lead to one of two possible outcomes: the character will either slip her pursuer or she’ll get caught. That makes this type of scene skim-or-skip material. Worse, it makes false tension out of all the pages the writer devotes to pouring sweat, burning lungs, cramping muscles, stumbling feet, and darkness. And false tension makes readers feel cheated.

What you’re after is dramatic tension, which you can only evoke to the extent that you can make readers understand why this character and why this situation? I’d much rather find out who that 70-year-old woman is and why she’s digging in her garden in the rain! Wouldn’t you?

Study the difference, and then practice creating story openings that entice rather than merely excite. This skill will take you another step further down your path toward storytelling mastery!

Photo Credit: puamelia


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