Pub Rants

A Walk in the Woods

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I’m actively looking to add to my client list for science fiction and fantasy. Subsequently, I’ve been reading a lot of sample pages in those genres.

I’m noticing something in the first 30 pages I’m reading—what turns me off mainly.

Now remember, rules are always made to be broken and any writer who can break them well is going to get attention. So, I’m a little hesitant to name my fantasy foibles on this blog but here goes.

Things I’d rather not see start a Fantasy novel.

1. A person gathering herbs in the forest.

It obviously happens more than I think because I’ve lost count of how many submissions I’ve read where this situation is the opening chapter. Herb gathering. Evidently quite popular.

I’m thinking an opening forest scene is going to be a tough go unless something really inventive or original happens.

2. A battle scene.

I always scratch my head on this one. I think it’s a writer’s way to “delve” immediately into the action so to speak. Here’s my problem with it. I don’t know the characters yet. I haven’t got any idea of who to like and who should win or even a good sense of what’s at stake. Not to mention, it’s really hard to do good character development in a battle scene. Characters can only be growing so much when ax swinging.

3. A prologue.

99.9% of the time, the prologue is vague or doesn’t really give me a sense of the writing or the story that’s going to unfold. I skip them as a general rule. As a writer submitting to me, I’d skip including it in your package. Why take up some of your valuable 30 pages only space?

4. A distant third person narrative to start (ie. The boy, the old man, the healer)

This is just a personal foible of mine I think. It’s hard for me to feel immediately connected to the character or the story. I want my emotions engaged from page one.

I’ve put it out there now so you’ll know what will happen. I’ll get an herb-gathering person in the forest during a battle scene prologue submission that’s going to change my mind.

26 Responses

  1. Jackie said:

    Have you read George R. R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE epic fantasy? Yep, a prologue, a woods, a battle, and third-person POV (albeit close third person). No herb gathering, though.

    But maybe Martin is an exception. (Of course, he’s also a best selling author, so exceptions will be made…)


  2. doc-t said:

    Prologue: Battle of the herbs

    The ‘TIM’ was gathering herbs in the forest when the sound of battle crashed over him like a wave from an angry herb hating ocean. Tim dropped his herbs as he turned and saw “the agent” shooting fireballs from her red pen of rejection. The fireballs flew at the pages the ‘TIM’ existed on. What to do? The ‘TIM’ was determined to live on! To exist in the sequel and prequel. To inspire more alan jackson directed movies. To be the muscular guy on the cover of a fantasy novel who fights dragons, while wearing only a loin cloth and soft leather boots.

    Out of the corner of his eye the ‘Tim’ sees help coming in the form of the ‘fan.’

    “Nay! Stay thy wrath o’ literary one!” said the ‘fan.’ Those were the last words the ‘fan’ ever spoke. The angent was too blinded with hate and intolerance of herb ladended battle scenes in prologues.

    Just as the fireball was about to consume the ‘TIM’, he TURNED TH PAGE! “A-Ha” he shouted victoriously “I have escaped they merciless pen! I will write my own destiny!” A sad realization struck the ‘Tim.’ “Umm…Can I borrow a Pen?”

    What happens next?

    Only the TIM knows

  3. Jpatrick said:

    Oh, my. I think the prologues in a couple of Crichton’s books were OK. It was like Chapter Zero in “Congo”.

    Edmund Cooper wrote a couple novels with what he called a “Proem”, which I guess is a prose-poem prologue. They were nice, but I could have skipped them.

    As for the “distant” third person… Couldn’t agree more. I’ve read entire short stories with pronouns for characters. They were dreadful!

  4. Anonymous said:

    I have used a prologue in my fantasy novel to introduce a character’s trate right off the bat ‘cuz I feel the first person you read about in a story is usaully the character you tend to stick to. The one whose life you want to follow most. Other characters may come in and out, but you always want to know whats happening to the one who brought you into the story. Just an opinion from a yet to be published writer…

  5. Annie said:

    Yikes! Fantasy and sci-fi leave me cold, but if I did read these genres, I think my pet peeve would be the goofy names people think up for their characters. I realize “Mike” might be an inappropriate name for a guy in a fantasy epic, but must we have names that are more difficult to pronounce than the cast of War and Peace?

  6. Marlo said:

    I write spec fic, and I’ve never had a battle or herb gathering. Of course, I don’t have elves either.

    Flipping over a book and seeing the blurb start with “The Ghstyenfu have ruled for 5000 years…”, I slip straight into coma.

    And, of course, anything described as ‘epic’ gives me a rash. If you duck the ‘epics’, you find the good stuff.

  7. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    I wonder if I could manage to put all that in the first chapter. A forest, a maiden, a battle, add a prologue. I think it’d work!

    Snarkie sent me over to your blog. I’m glad you’re blogging. It sounds a bit funny to say, but your rejection email impressed the devil out of me. After a series of idiot emails from a bad boy on Ann and Victoria’s list, your email was a relief.

    Thanks for the kindness of a reply and a kind reply.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Read the prologue. If it’s bad, hit the ‘No’ button, there’s no need to continue. A prologue can set up the entire premise for a novel and ‘set the hook’. A good writer knows this. And so should you.

  9. Dave Kuzminski said:

    Out of curiosity as well as self-interest, are there many agents that you know of who would be interested in representing a book for print rights that’s only been produced in ebook format?

  10. Jillian said:

    Hi Kristin — I’m glad to see that you’re blogging (you’re one of the most “approachable” agents out there, and I’m delighted that you’re willing to share your viewpoint in the blog world).

    I’m smiling (or is that a smirk?) and shaking my head. My fantasy novel doesn’t fall into any of the above “no-no’s,” yet my partial didn’t flip your cookie, anyway. Alas! I’m left to wonder what it was that left you cold.

    Then again, if I spent time wondering about the “why” of all my past rejections, I’d never get any writing done!

    Welcome to the blogosphere! 🙂

  11. Dhewco said:

    On the other hand, I added a prologue so I could clarify some misunderstandings my beta readers seem to be getting.

    The antagonist seems like a complete sicko in the first two chapters, because that’s what I wanted the reader to think. Apparently, that was a mistake. None of my readers cared to read about such.

    Later on in the novel, it is revealed the antag is using the humiliation of the protag as part of a machiavellian (Sp?) grab for power.

    I added a prologue (the murder and funeral of the protag’s mother) where the true meaning of the antag’s actions are heavily hinted.

    Anyway, I’ve been more mouthy than I intended. All I’m saying is, prologues don’t have to be vague and can really add to the understanding of the reader, especially in Scifi and fantasy.

  12. Radicalfeministpoet said:

    Let’s face it, 109% of “fantasy” literature is complete and utter garbage. It’s a form of obscenity–but whom should we punish: the people who write it or the people who read it? (And can they really read?)

    Annie’s got it right about the names. Tolkien could pull this off because he had enough linguistic sophistication to apply an internal consistency to each of his languages and the proper names assoicated with them. But most of the bozos who churn this stuff out flunked high school French. What gets me is the bewildering profusion of Qs, KHs and other improbable consonants, interrupted all too infrequently by a vowel which likely as not is festooned with some oddball diacritic. Does every fantasy character have to sound like a heavy metal band?

    PS. I like the “preview” function. Reviewing my post reminds me what a brilliant writer I am.

  13. Radicalfeministpoet said:

    Thanks, Demented–only I’m not an agent, just a brilliant writer.

    As for your first paragraph, though, you’ve lost me (and being extremely clever, I’m hard to lose). What is literary Viagra? If you mean generic Viagra, there’s no such thing yet; don’t pay attention to those emails you’ve been getting. I suppose intelligent people like to trash sci fi / fantasy because so much of it is just that, trash. You wouldn’t think it possible, but all those unpronounceable and silly names books detract from, rather than distract from, the clumsy and ungainly prose style. I’m all for freedom of speech, that doesn’t mean that people that write, publish or read this stuff shouldn’t be punished with the full fury of the law.

  14. Sandra said:

    This is sad news. It took me a year to get my prologue just right. Now I learn you probably just zoomed to the first chapter? (Heart breaks)

  15. Radicalfeministpoet said:

    I deleted my previous comments whilst I realized I was feeding the trolls.

    This is exactly what I was talking about. The aptly-named Demeneted may have goofed up and deleted his message–who of us hasn’t been frustrated by computer glitches?–but blaming it on non-existent bogey-men is just plain scary. There are no such things as trolls! Or goblins, or elves, or leprechauns, or fairies.

    Does anyone still doubt this “genre” must be suppressed?

  16. Wesley Smith said:

    I would agree that prologues generally leave me cold, in any genre. To add to what Marlo said about the back cover blurb, if the prologue takes place 500 years before the first chapter, I generally put it down. There are too many good fantasy novels out there for me to waste time reading prologues that have nothing to do with the rest of the story.

    Having said that, I found myself breaking my own rule with my current novel, with a prologue that is a dream sequence, but it foreshadows important revelations later on in the story.

  17. Delan said:

    In the 0.1% of submissions where the prologue DID work for you, what made them different from the 99.9%?

  18. Anonymous said:

    Yah want some cliche?
    Diane Wynne Jones’ “A Tough Guide to Fantasy Land” is great – and can be applied from Tolkein on down!

    Linda 🙂

  19. Anonymous said:

    This one is for the radical feminist. every genre has its cliche. As a fantasy writer, it is a hard pressed task to eliminate those cliche’s or better yet, transform them into something new an exciting that a reader has never come across before. If you read chic lit, sci/fi, fantasy, or self help, isn’t it enough that people are at least reading something? I give KUDOS to any writer, no matter what their genre, for having the guts to put their thoughts and imagination out there for public scrutiny. KUDOS to the writer I say. Kudos.