Pub Rants

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

Category: opening pages

What Exactly Is Uneven Writing?

After I did a blog post on Tales From The Submission Inbox, lots of writers asked on twitter and Facebook what exactly I meant by “uneven writing.”

It’s a great question and I’ll do my best to try and answer it. It’s tough though. Because I can always recognize it but it’s harder to describe.


Here are three examples:

1) Uneven writing is when an author has some writing talent but hasn’t quite mastered the craft fully. So one sentence will be terrific and then it will be followed by a paragraph of something clunky.


2) A scene is clipping along great and then the writer stops and throws in back story at a wrong moment that interrupts the flow of the narrative.


3) Writer has some great characterization that’s clear in the scene unfolding and then suddenly the writer tells the reader what they need to know XYZ about this character but they actually didn’t have to. It’s extraneous because it was already apparent in the scene.

It’s good stuff clashing with what I always label, beginning writing mistakes.


Tales from the Submission Inbox

Since the start of 2015, I’ve read 30 submitted sample pages and I have another 20 or so to go. I’ve been pretty impressed so far and have asked for 7 full manuscripts. That might be a record for me in such a short time period.

But it also means that I’ve passed on a lot of submissions as well. And they’ve been good so why did I pass? I popped into our electronic submissions database and looked at some of my responses.

Here are some snippets in case you find them illuminating:

“There are a lot of POV shifts and I’m also worried that it’s too quiet.”

“Great concept for the story. Writing too uneven.”

“Nicely written. Quirky characters. Not a story I would pick up and read on my own so just not right for me.”

“Nice writing. Just missing that spark for me.”

“Perfectly fine story but average writing.”

“The writing feels like it’s trying too hard to be literary.”

“Writer nails the voice but there isn’t much driving the plot forward.”


The Pesky Scene Break

Last month I did my ever-popular webinar Creating the Road Map for Your Novel. Of the ten participants, half had trouble with a powerful writing tool called the scene break. Now, scene breaks are awesome—unless they are overused or not used for maximum impact.

Why do writers use scene breaks? During the webinar, we came up with several reasons:

  1. To signal a shift in time (for example, to enter and exit a flashback, or to skip over a brief period of time during which nothing plotworthy happens).
  2. To signal a shift in point of view (POV).
  3. To build suspense, leaving one scene at a climactic, cliffhanger moment to switch to a new scene.

(To read some great examples, see Janice Hardy’s article on the topic of scene breaks.)

Here are three things about scene breaks to note:

  • Don’t use scene breaks too liberally. Think of POV as a movie camera. If you are constantly breaking scenes (moving the narrative camera), your reader is going to be pulled out of one scene and dumped into another. If it happens to often, your reader will get whiplash and lose the narrative thread of your story.
  • Scene breaks that signal shifts in time should be used judiciously and only when doing so actually moves the plot forward. Don’t use scene breaks as tools of convenience when they offer no other narrative impact. This type of scene break is the biggest culprit; when it doesn’t work on the page, it creates the most abrupt interruption in the logical flow of the narrative.
  • When breaking a scene to skip a period of time, ask yourself what happens during the time you’re choosing to skip. Are you skipping action that should be on the page? I’ve read manuscripts in which the hero conveniently gets conked on the head during a battle scene, only to wake up (after the scene break) once his buddies have defeated the enemy. New writers who are intimidated by writing action/battle scenes, or scenes in which the hero might have to come up with a brilliant plan to save the day, will sometimes conveniently skip them. Don’t fall into that trap!

In summary, whenever you are tempted to toss in a scene break, ask yourself: What is the function of this scene break? And what, if anything, am I skipping over that should appear on the page?

Top Culprits For Why Agents Stop Reading

Two weekends ago, I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a chance to not only do a read-and-critique session, but also my infamous Agent Reads the Slush Pile workshop.

Doing these classes always provides fresh insight into why I stop reading a submission. Here are the top culprits so you, too, can start thinking like an agent when you read your opening chapters. If you say yes to any of them, time to dig into a revision!

1) Does your opening chapter begin with action, but then stop abruptly so that your character can sit and think or reminisce? About 50 percent of the pages we tackled did just that.

It’s a passive way to begin a story and means you’ve started in the wrong place.

2) Analyze your opening dialogue, and then the exposition that immediately follows it. Does your telling simply reiterate what was already clear in the dialogue?

3) Do you have a prologue? Is it in a different voice or style from the rest of the novel, or does it take a different direction? Is the prologue just an info dump about the world or backstory youthink the reader needs to know? Decide if it’s really necessary to include a prologue, as most agents will skip to chapter one or will stop reading altogether.

4) Do you repeat a fun element that was absolutely funny the first time around, but when it is repeated, it loses impact?

5) Does your opening chapter include nothing but dialogue? Not anchoring the reader clearly in a physical scene is a key culprit for why agents don’t read on. They have no way to imagine the scene.

6) How much of your opening chapter is in the current scene and how much is backstory? Remember that you, as the writer, need to know your character’s backstory, but the reader doesn’t need to know it right away in order to be pulled into your story.

Top 2 Reasons Why I Pass On Sample Pages

Just recently I did a workshop where I had the participants partner with another person in the class and exchange the first 30 pages of their manuscripts. The assignment I gave them was to read the 30 pages all the way through once. After that was completed, to go back and start rereading. On the second read, I asked them to go page by page and outline the plot points in a neat list list by chapter.  I stressed that they were not summarizing the chapter. Simply listing the action found in it.  Then I had them email me the outlines before I started reading.

Those were the instructions and everyone in the class tackled the exercise just fine so I’m confident all of you can do the same.

I’d take a quick glance at the by-chapter outline and as an agent, I’d know what was wrong with the manuscript before I even hit the first page and started reading. I would then read the document to confirm what I already knew. One hundred percent of the time I was right.  I’d say 90% of what we see on submission has these issues so it’s definitely worth taking forty minutes to do this exercise with a writing partner that you trust.

Because the two main culprits that will nix you getting a full manuscript request are these:

1) The work is missing a plot catalyst to really start the story (so there is a lot going on action-wise but no actual story unfolding).

2) There is nothing at stake for the main character.

Happy revising!

It Was Bound To Happen

Well, this is a first. Now that I think about it, I’m actually surprised it hasn’t happened before now.  What am I talking about?

I just received an email from a writer who wanted to gift me his/her self-published electronic book on the Kindle.

It’s a lovely gesture but I absolutely cannot accept. I had Anita send the author an email saying I had to decline and to please get a refund for the gift coupon. If I accepted this, it would open a whole gray area can of worms. It’s probably not what this writer was thinking but an agent could accept the gift coupon, not buy the book in question, and get something else instead. In general, gifts to agents feels like a slippery slope. Better just to say no.

So thanks but no thanks.

Truly, you just need to send us a free query letter by email. We will read and consider it. If I want to read more and I know the title is published on the Kindle, maybe I’ll ask for the mobi file. The writer could then send that.

Groan Worthy

Status: The subway is getting a little steamy in terms of humidity these past few days.

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? CONNECTED by Stereo MC’s

Several years ago, way before tags were available on blogger, I did a really popular post on openings to avoid when writing fantasy novels.

Last week, I went to lunch with an editor from Tor and LOL, we got to brainstorming other “great” openings. So I’ve got a few to add to the list. Now I wanted to link to that previous entry but darn of I can find it! If anyone has it handy, post in the comments and I’ll embed the link. (Update: here’s the link! Thank you blog readers for finding this entry way back in year 2006!)

From what I remember of the previous list, we saw a lot of fantasy novels with main characters gathering herbs in the forest. Who knew what a popular past time that was? Openings with battle scenes where the reader had no connection to the characters was another big winner.

Sure, any masterful writer can grab any of these “openings” and do them justice but for us mere mortals, they tend to be groan worthy.

The latest contenders:

1. Man sitting on steed in pouring rain.

2. Woman standing on high wall looking out into the distance at something

3. The city chase scene

4. Aftermath of a battle

Every Topic Under The Sun

Status: New Macbook at home is messing with the font size on blogger. I’ll keep fiddling.

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? SECRETS by One Republic

I’ve been blogging for four years going on five. Some days, it just feels like I’ve covered every topic there is to talk about in Publishing. Most questions we receive have already been answered once on the blog and can be found in the archives.

Seriously, some days when I’m walking Chutney to work, I’ve gotta dig deep for a blog topic. *grin* But in all my years of agenting, NLA has never given a first pages workshop. Now I’ve done an occasional one at a conference but never through the blog or the agency directly.

Which is why Sara decided to take it on! Remember when I decided to do a Writers Digest Webinar a couple of months ago? We got great feedback and participants said it was valuable.

So given the positive response, Sara decided to give a webinar she has long wanted to entitled START YOUR STORY RIGHT. And the bonus? After the webinar, you get to submit the first 3 pages of your manuscript for a critique to see if your opening pages make the cut.

When we did the query Webinar, we had over 200 participants and we read every query submitted for critique. That took hours.

I think she might be crazy but hey, if you’ve ever wanted feedback on your opening, here’s your chance!

Click here to register for Sara’s Webinar.

In-Depth 30-Page Critique Once A Year

STATUS: I got one major contract off my desk and on to somebody else’s at the publishing house. Always a great feeling.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? SOMETIMES YOU CAN’T MAKE IT ON YOUR OWN by U2

Yesterday I was explaining that agents don’t often have time to give detailed feedback because that would entail a critique of the manuscript and doing so is time-consuming.

Well, I should have clarified. Once a year, I always take the time to do exactly that for one lucky auction winner.

I read the 30 pages twice. First read to familiarize myself with the submission and the second read to actually write in-depth critique feedback in track changes of the Word doc. Just like I do for my clients when I read before submitting their material.

So if you want in on that action, it’s time to head over to Brenda Novak’s yearly auction to raise money for diabetes research. My critique page is here. Since I have a good friend plus a brother–in-law with diabetes, this auction is close to my heart.

Happy bidding!

And don’t forget to check out some other great items like a read/critique from Sara Megibow, lunch with Jamie Ford, and if you are a Nathan Bransford fan, he’s offering a critique with a follow up consultation.

Starting A Novel In The Wrong Place

STATUS: Just another manic Monday.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? RED RIVER VALLEY by Frank Macchia and Tierney Sutton

This weekend was an interesting one for me. I read our slush pile for the first time in several years. Grin.

What do I mean by that? Well, I hired Sara Megibow more than four years ago and once she was fully trained, she read all incoming submissions to set aside the ones that I actually needed to review. In other words, I read only a third of all the actual submissions that came to the agency.

As we train Anita, somebody needs to read behind her to make sure she’s forwarding the right submissions on to Sara and to me. Anita will become the reader of all things while Sara and I can have a reduced workload. There isn’t enough time in the day for us to read ALL incoming submissions.

So this weekend I read eleven different sample page submissions and one salient point became very clear. There are decent writers out there who are totally starting their stories in the wrong place which can obscure what the novel is really about. If I’ve read 30 pages and it’s clear to me that we still haven’t gotten to the right beginning, it’s a pass.

So the biggest writing culprit writers need to watch for that will indicate a story starting in the wrong place?

Back story.

One submission had several scenes that weren’t really relevant to where the novel actually started—which was in chapter three (around page 27). The opening scenes were essentially back story—info the writer needs to know but the reader doesn’t. Back story needs to be integrated throughout the novel in a masterful way.

Second biggest culprit?


In other words, the writer is overcompensating for the wrong beginning by including beginning scenes with too much detail about the characters and all the underlying tension of the relationships so all that is clear before the novel can “begin.” The details are certainly good to have but they are placed in scenes that don’t actually move the story forward. In other words, the only purpose of the scene is to introduce characters. Then by chapter three or four, suddenly we have the actual story.

I know this is happening when I read and think, not bad writing here but this author needs some judicious editing as I’m getting bogged down in details but the story isn’t actually moving forward with momentum and tension.

Writers who are actually ready for agent submission have mastered the art of seamlessly integrating back story and relevant character details into a plot that moves the story forward.
Those who haven’t are probably getting passes on sample pages and no requests for the full (although an agent might highlight there is decent writing on the page).

And I know what you are thinking. Why can’t agents just say this? Because it would take too much time to point it out and clearly illustrate it. That would be critiquing the manuscript which is too time-consuming.

Which is why I’m trying to use this blog entry to point this out. I know examples would help but I don’t have permission from submitters to use their work on this blog.

ps. Thanks for all the embed songs into blog tips. I’ll check out the sites and see what I can start using.

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