Pub Rants

Recap—Top 10 Things I’d Rather Not See in Opening Chapters

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STATUS: Super busy. It’s 8 p.m. and I’m thinking I can’t skip blogging today. I’ve never missed!

What song is playing on the iPod right now? HERE COMES MY GIRL by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Back by popular demand (or I didn’t title my blog posts well and previous rants are difficult to find).

I mentioned yesterday that I gave a presentation on the top ten things I’d rather not see in the opening chapters of your SF, Fantasy, and paranormal romance (because that sort of fits and I needed 10 things to make a nice round number).

Notice I gave this rant a handy title.

Here’s my ten list and they aren’t any particular order. Most of these will be quite familiar to my regular blog readers.

1. Characters inexplicably getting sucked into a portal for no apparent reason

This is mostly a YA fantasy device and yes, I realize there is long tradition of portals into other worlds in young adult fiction (Chronicles of Narnia and all that).

All I’m saying is that portal needs to be really necessary and not just an excuse to transport characters into another world so you can now finally tell your story

2. A person gathering herbs in the forest

Honestly, it can’t happen as frequent as I seem to see it in opening chapters.

3. A battle scene.

Goodness, let me get attached to some characters before you start whacking them. Seriously, there’s no connection to the world, characters, etc. Without it, it’s impossible for me to know who to care about.

4. A prologue.

I’ve been doing this for four years (granted—not a long time) but I have yet to see a well-done prologue in sample pages I’ve received. Even if you have one, for goodness sake, don’t send it as part of your sample. If I offer representation because I love your work, then you can spring it on me.

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

Once again, hard to feel connection to a story that’s about to unfold when this is used.

6. Clumsy incorporating of back story in your dialogue (see handy example)

Character 1: I must find the elusive stone of magic (of death, of life, insert appropriate fantasy element here).

Character 2: Yes, my Queen, it is imperative we find it but you also need to remember to collect the six other crystals/stones/talismans for without it, you will not have the power of the XYZ and will be unable to rule your domain.

Ah, if she’s the Queen, wouldn’t she know all this? This dialogue is obviously for the reader’s benefit and not because it’s necessary to the story unfolding.

7. Launching your narrative via a dream sequence

I see this a lot in paranormal romance (but it can still apply to SF & F). It’s a cheap trick. Reader gets invested and then the character “wakes up.” Ugh. It’s such a let down.

8. Heroine waking up alone with a man in her room

This seems to be another popular theme in paranormal romance. This is not sexy. Any woman with a lick of sense would be terrified if this really happened. Hard to move the story forward from there.

9. Tired SF or Fantasy staples: i.e.: quest for a magical artifact, typical characters (dwarf, elf, the warrioress who doesn’t know she has magical powers), a modern woman who is really the savior on an alternate world.

Pretty self-explanatory.

10. Starting your cover letter for your sample pages with: this is a 250,000 word manuscript…

Guaranteed to send me running while screaming.

Now remember, this is just one agent’s opinion.

34 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    What if the prologue was the true beginning of the story? Mine is the initial coincidence that sets off the events in the plot–without it, nothing else can really happen. Of course, it’s set the same day as the rest of the tale, not 300 years ago; and it’s not written in a dry, distant narrative. I suppose I might have called it chapter one, but it was a short episode and seemed happy to stand alone.

    I did send it as part of my sample–a sample that doesn’t happen to have “requested materials” written on the envelope(see comments on previous post)–and Ican only hope you won’t hold it against me.

    On the bright side, there are no portals anywhere in my story, and no gathering of herbs–my characters buy their weed from an apothecary or pharmacopia.

    And if my heroine awoke to find a strange man in her room, she’d probably rip his head off and eat it. 🙂

  2. 2readornot said:

    Someday i will break through and convince you of how wonderful i am — and we’ll ride into the agent/author sunset together…someday.

  3. Anonymous said:

    I’m getting the impression I’ve vaulted a major hurdle, just getting the delightful agent Kristin to request my partial. I can only hope I don’t blow it in the first sentence.

    Gathering herbs: no

    Fishing: yes

  4. Sam said:

    What a 200,000 word novel that starts with an old man narrating a dream about a young woman gathering herbs in the forest during a heated battle – (she’s a healer and must gather herbs for the wounded soldiers!) before being sucked into a mushroom shaped portal in order to find the elusive magical sword of justice in order to save the whole world from…

    Kristin? Kristin??

  5. Michelle said:

    LOL. While I was reading your list I was doing a check list in my mind of the manuscript I want to query you on. I think I’m safe 🙂

  6. Patrick McNamara said:

    I have to confess to using “portals” in the general sense, but I use them with a purpose. I use quotes because almost anything can serve as a portal, including a car or a train. A person being kidnapped and waking up overseas could fall into the same category.

    To use a portal as just an excute to get character A to point B is pointless. But when there are other factors that link the two worlds they can be useful. And one has to recognise that if a person is taken from this world, their first concern (and often the reader’s main concern) will be to get (the character) back home. Handled correctly, this could become a key story element.

  7. lorraine said:

    This is a GREAT list.

    I opened with a dream sequence once, but it was a premonition, and it was much earlier in my career. I wouldn’t do it again. I think it happens when people are afraid their “real” opening doesn’t have a big enough hook.

    And I’m loving your taste in music!

  8. Bernita said:

    My Damie time travels in chapter four.
    Couldn’t resist having her call it a “portal” in chapter eight when she comes back.

  9. Anonymous said:

    A question on word count (for the fantasy genere): What’s considered a good length not to send agents running in fear?

    I’ve seen numbers banded about ranging from 100,000 to 175,000, so I’m not sure what’s a good gauge.

    Thanks. And thanks for his blog.

  10. Catja (green_knight) said:

    I think portals have a justification when you’re writing a story that takes place in both worlds, ours and theirs, like some of Barbara Hambly’s work.

    And while I share the general dislike of prologues I’ve got one story where a prologue was the best solution – I wanted to be up close and personal with the beginning of the story, but I didn’t want to break the unity of the rest of the story.

    I just tried to read one of Eddings ‘when the old gods roamed the Earth’ prologues, so I can understand the sentiment.

  11. Debby G. said:

    Great list! Thanks!

    I was feeling so smug when I read this. Yeah, of course, I hate dream sequences and herb gathering too, blah blah blah.

    And then I realized my YA time travel novel coming out next year has a portal! Ack! I’m not worthy!

  12. Lizzy said:

    Oh man, there we go with dissing the portals again 🙂

    A fantasy without a quest is like a romance without a hot, shirtless dude on the cover. Or a murder mystery without a murder. Or a vampire book without teeth.

  13. Mad Scientist Matt said:

    #8 gives me a couple of good ideas for how to start a story if the genre is horror, suspense, or mystery. Seems like a good way to introduce a creepy enemy, not a love interest.

  14. Bernita said:

    Catja, Hambly’s Time of the Dark trilogy also has a dream sequence in the first chapter.
    It’s one of my favourite fantasy sets.

  15. Anonymous said:

    It’s funny that this subject comes up now. I had *just* been through all the previously listed blogs for just this very topic (Feb I think I found it). Should have just waited another day. 😉

  16. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for this Kristin, though i will keep the dream sequences since dreaming weaves throughout my visionary fiction book. If i dropped it, i’d have to rewrite the entire book. Take that back. I’d have to write an entirely new book. Hmmmm

    Sam, :~o

  17. Jessica said:

    Okay, okay. I have one. Just one. #9 (the quest part, not the part about elves or whatever. All my people are normal, and there’s no one from another “world” or whatever). Anyway, but it’s not exactly the a typical quest after some object that you’d normally see. They’re off dealing with other things too beside the “quest item” you know like going after the bad guys, while they don’t even realize the magical quest item thing is still out there. And when they do find it, it isn’t what they thought at all. Well, one out of ten isn’t so bad, I guess.

  18. kis said:

    I’ve got something similar–my MC is on a quest she doesn’t want to be on, but what she eventually finds isn’t a Mcguffin but a Red Herring.

    I do have races other than human, and they are reminiscent of elves and orcs, but I hope I’ve put a fresh enough spin on them that they aren’t tired anymore.

    There’s always a problem in SFF with the dreaded info-dump. Stephen R Donaldson solved it in his Gap Series by inserting small pockets of “ancillary documentation” between the chapters when there was stuff the reader needed to know. He kept the info short and sweet, in an anecdotal rather than textbook tone, so it worked ok.

    I’ve tried to spread my bits of history and culture out within the narrative and dialogue, but you have to assume the reader is going to be paying enough attention to put the pieces together. No matter how much easier it is, you can’t, just CAN’T have people telling each other stuff they already know!

  19. sexmuse said:

    Why I’m taking the AZ bar in feb, I guess

    1. Characters inexplicably getting sucked into a portal for no apparent reason

    key would be inexplicably…

    4. A prologue.

    hey, let’s go one worse…in the prologue is when the heroine gets sucked into the portal.

    9. Tired SF or Fantasy staples: i.e.: quest for a magical artifact… a modern woman who is really the savior on an alternate world.

    double your misery, double your fun…Aideen is the mistress of the bloodstone, has to send it back through that inexplicable portal she was sucked into in the prologue

    Ah…what? I ran out of loser wannabe author mistakes…I was so sure I could hit at least 50%.

  20. Anonymous said:

    What? No prologue? Is that why you turned me down? At least I didn’t tread over the other faux pas.

    Had I known you detested prologues I would have just jumped in with the meat and left off the gravy.

    Your OA did send a very nice rejection letter though.

  21. Mrs. Brain Bomb said:

    Although I’m not talking about the book, I swear, I saw rule #6 in action in the DaVinci Code film. I just had to mention it-it’s just as bad.

  22. Beth said:

    Starting your cover letter for your sample pages with: this is a 250,000 word manuscript…

    Whew! I’m safe. Mine’s 430,000.

  23. Next anon said:

    To last anon poster. At least you’re in good company. Mine had none of the top ten list and I still got shot down. I suspect the rejections will be flying a lot faster and more furious now that she’s hired on the extra help. It’s just Business 101. When you delegate authority in the office place the bandwidth of the material that is considered (whether in banking, insurance or in this case literature)often narrows considerably.

  24. Anonymous said:

    Well, this is most excellent advice since I’m about to send you some requested material. I’ve just nixed the prologue pages. : )

    Thanks for posting this. Talk about timing.

  25. Anonymous said:

    i think all these top ten dont’s were in “Outlander. just a lil book that sold a lot of copies.

  26. Carradee said:

    Please pardon me while I chuckle. Love that #10. And I think one story idea (on a back burner) might have a #5 that you would actually like in its execution.

    Now, #9 is fun. I’m happy to see someone else complaining. There are too many elegant half-elf heroines who will save their peoples but don’t know it yet.

    [smiles] I love freshening clichés. But writing from the perspective of a paranoid quarter-elf klutz without sacrificing her credibility is hard. >_
    Do you not get many kiddie clichés? By that I refer to the genius-beyond-reason or stupid-and-perfect-beyond-reason younglings. (I know, I’m a Star Wars fan.)

    I’ll admit, I fall prey to the unusually intelligent kiddie syndrome, but I have an excuse: I’ve always fallen in the “unusually intelligent” category and therefore have no idea what “normal” is. (Though I also happen to believe that any kid could learn a lot more if properly educated.)

    Sorry for rambling. I’ll go now and come back when I’ve had some more sleep. 🙂