Pub Rants

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

Category: Writing As A Career

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


Former Egmont Authors: Check Your Royalty Statements

Publishing is a complex business with a lot of moving parts. Every contract is unique, and most errors we find on royalty statements are caused by data-entry mishaps that occur when contract terms are incorrectly keyed into publishers’ accounting systems.

In other words, human error is often the culprit.

So I’m going to give Lerner the benefit of the doubt and assume that such a scenario is currently at play here.

A recap of history for context: In January 2016, news hit the wires that Egmont USA children’s publisher was closing up shop due to its failure to find a buyer.

This created a lot of consternation, as more than 100 titles that were going to be published were now suddenly in limbo and contracts would most likely be canceled.

Good news was just around the corner, though, in the shape of Lerner, who bought out the titles and committed to honoring the contracts. Authors would live happily ever after!

Until their royalty statements arrived.

On the surface, everything looks normal. Royalty rates appear to be the same as they were under Egmont—except for one very crucial difference. Egmont contracts specified that author royalties would be calculated based on list price. But when the Lerner statements arrived, royalties are now being calculated based on net amounts received.

Not the same thing.

How do they differ? Let’s do some easy math: 10% of list price = approximately 20% of net amounts received. If this in play, the author will earn approximately the same amount of money, regardless of whether the calculation is done based on list price or based on net amounts received.

So not a big deal. The problem occurs if the number “10” stays the same, but how it was calculated changes.

Here’s why: 10% of net amounts receive is one-half (1/2) the royalty money earned in comparison to 10% of list price.

That’s a significant drop for the author.

It’s pretty easy to see how this might simply be a data-entry mistake. Either way, I feel compelled to alert writers might have been unagented when they signed contracts with Egmont and, thus, probably didn’t catch this accounting error—especially if they are unfamiliar with deciphering royalty statements.

It is also possible that a fair amount of literary agents have also missed it—especially if they haven’t yet audited the Lerner statements.

So former Egmont authors, check your contract, and then check your royalty statements. Make sure you’re getting paid everything you’re contractually owed!

Photo Credit: Ano Lobb


What Is Your Magic Number?

All aspiring writers want their magic number to be one.

The first novel a writer ever wrote is perfect from conception.

The first novel lands a literary agent.

The first novel is so awesome, it immediately sells at auction.

The first novel is published to great fanfare and much commercial success.

The dream-come-true of overnight success. Well, I’d like to tell you something about that. Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, overnight-success stories are fiction. Most of these stories don’t divulge that the author ghostwrote ten novels for other people, or wrote three of their own novels that are tucked away because the author was working on craft.

In real life, what is the magic number—the number of novels written before a writer gets picked up by an agent, sold, and published?

I’ll tell you right now, it’s not one. If you poll a large number of authors and ask them how many novels they wrote before their first one sold, and then if you average the numbers they give you, my sense is that you will land right around four.

One of the truths I highlight at writers conferences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a later, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just completed your first novel, awesome. Celebrate this huge achievement. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you independently publish it and it doesn’t get much traction.

Keep on writing. Your magic number might be two or six or ten. My guess is that if you are passionately writing with ten novels under your belt, success is just around the corner.

Photo Credit: Andy Maguire


Why It’s Dangerous To Think That “Diverse Books” is the Latest Hot Trend

Just recently, PW published an article in which agents shared their thoughts on children’s books and YA trends. Although I’m quite tickled that so many agents are seeing lots of submissions featuring diverse characters, it’s dangerous to consider diversity the latest YA trend.

I’m sure I’m not the only agent who can say they’ve been repping diverse authors/books since day one. It certainly didn’t take a trend for me to sign those books and authors (for example, Kelly Parra’s awesome MTV Book Graffiti Girl in 2007, Kim Reid’s memoir No Place Safe in 2007, and Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry in 2008). But I can say this: unequivocally, before #WeNeedDiverseBooks became a rallying cry in April 2014, selling in a diverse author/book was tons harder to do. I have my submission logs to prove it. It often took me about 12 to 16 months of grim determination to find a diverse book a home.

If diversity is now hot enough to make the selling-in part a lot of easier, trust me, I’m all for it. Yay! Finally! But I absolutely do not want diversity to be considered a trend in young-adult literature, and here is why: If something is a trend, then it can go out of fashion just as quickly as it came in. And quite frankly, that would be a travesty.

The blunt truth is that selling a diverse book is a perfectly normal thing to do in publishing. So my rallying cry? Agents, new and old, even when diverse books become harder to sell, as they inevitably will (in publishing, trends of every kind have always come and gone), keep on keeping on.

Diversity is not a trend. It’s simply here to stay. This is the new normal.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Alkaisi


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


Your Writing Should Not Be Your Main Source of Validation For Who You Are as a Person

I think this can be the most debilitating mistake an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

I recently gave a talk to Regis University’s MFA in Creative Writing students. In the fifteen-minute Q&A, one participant asked why it was so hard to get a literary agent to even look at her project. I could hear the frustration in her voice. I didn’t have a ready reply because the truth is that there is no good answer.

Writing is personal business. And any response and/or rejection can definitely feel like a commentary on your talent and who you are as a person.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

Let me repeat that: A rejection is often not a commentary on your writing talent.

I can cite a bundle of different reasons why an agent or publisher may pass on your work, reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your writing ability. Don’t believe me? Here are a few (and in no particular order):

  • The agent/publisher has seen two-dozen concepts just like that one in the last four weeks.
  • That concept trend was hot, so now the Publisher has bought too many similar projects for their list and will not be acquiring any more.
  • The agent has an aversion to that type of story. I know a well-respected literary agent who personally cannot handle any story in which a child is in danger, and so will pass on any submission containing such scenes.
  • The editor could not get support in-house from the sales/marketing team to acquire the novel.
  • An agent read the story and thought the writer was talented, but for whatever reason, just didn’t connect with it enough to offer representation.
  • Bad timing. The agent was on vacation or at a conference, or just back to the office, and is simply swamped. It’s hard to be excited about taking on someone new if you are buried in work that can’t be accomplished in a 40-hour work week. And, LOL, no good agent works only 40 hours. It’s more like 60+ a week.
  • There’s talent on the page, but the editor or agent might think a significant revision is necessary, and taking the hour to write up an editorial letter isn’t going to happen.
  • The novel just has an element the agent is never enthusiastic about. For example, some agents are never going to take on a fairy-tale retelling or superhero story. It’s just not his or her thing.

I could go on. There are so many reasons that when I spoke at Regis, the best advice I could offer is this: Do not use writing as a means of validating who you are as a person.

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Photo Credit: BK


3 Strategies For Your Post NaNoWriMo Project – From An Agent’s Perspective

You pounded out 50,000 words or more in the month of November. You rocked NaNoWriMo. Huge Congrats! But wait, before you press send, here are three things to consider:

Strategy #1: Consider the holidays

Don’t send out your novel in the month of December. Put yourself in an agent’s shoes for two seconds. The holidays are fast approaching. Agents are motivated by closure and wrapping things up so they can take two weeks off. Submissions are going to get read quickly so agents can check them off a to-do list that is always longer than time can accommodate.

So not the mindset you want an agent to be in when they read your novel. We are only human after all.

Strategy #2: Polish, polish, polish before submitting

If I had a dollar for every time a writer re-queried me for a project significantly revised since my rejection, I could live large. Often writers ask if they can resubmit, and 99% of the time, I decline. There simply isn’t enough time in the day for me to read submissions twice. Agents expect you to be ready the first time around. Don’t blow what might be your one chance with a particular agent.

But if I requested the revision, that’s a different story. Trust me, you’ll know if I’ve requested a revision from you.

Strategy #3: Don’t get stuck in the post-holiday crush

Don’t submit during the first few weeks of January. Why? I’ll tell you right now that that on our first day back, we’ll get 600+ queries. Hard to stand out in that influx.

Best time to submit? The last week in January/first week in February.

Agents are back in the swing of things and excited to read. February is usually a slow month for us.


#2 Reason I Pass Even If The Writing Is Good

Writers tend to assume that good writing trumps all when it comes to getting an offer of representation. Not true. Here is the #2 reason I will pass on a full manuscript even if the writing itself is stellar (for any of you who don’t read my blog, Pub Rants, see the #1 reason here):

Lack of story conflict for the protagonist.

To put this another way, the main character doesn’t have enough at stake to drive the story.

I recently read a full manuscript in which the writing and world building utterly charmed me. I loved spending time in the space the writer had created. But I arrived at the end of the novel and realized that being charmed was all there was to it.

Even if the writing and the world are charming, no stakes means no conflict. Why is that a problem? Because no conflict means no story. Conflict—or what’s at stake for the main character—is the engine writers use to tell a good story.

In this particular case, I did write up a lovely but short revision letter outlining my concern. I shared that with the author, along with an invitation to revise and resubmit. I’ll be delighted to give that one another look.

Still, the novel would have been stronger had the writer nailed this necessary element the first time around. It’s harder for an agent to read with “fresh eyes” the second time.

So remember, writing talent + story conflict = masterful manuscript.

Photo Credit: Ken & Nyetta


Denver Skyline Photo © Nathan Forget [Creative Commons] | Site built by Todd Jackson