Pub Rants

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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.


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

7 Responses

  1. Michael Price said:

    When I see a post about what agents are not looking for in novels or opening pages, I get nervous at first and I read what you post about, then I relax and relies that I am still doing good and I continue writing. Thank you for being there for the writers out there. We need someone to continue to steer us in the right direction. After all you and your staff have been doing this far longer than all of us who are up and coming. It is good to know you have our backs even if you one day do not choose to represent our work.

  2. Richard Atwood said:

    It was a dark and stormy night.
    I really liked that opening, and wanted to use it, come what may, for the tongue-in-cheek lack of seriousness to be involved; after all, doing a gay, erotic fantasy with a GOT ambiance isn’t for everyone — . Though it is super sexual, bloody, and romantic, with men and women all mixed together, but mostly big muscled, hugely endowed males making it with each other. If 50 Shades of Grey can be for women, why are men into men ignored… except by the fluffy females who write such stuff, and mostly for the same readership? Amazing to me. Though the stuff for men tends to have no redeeming values; in mine, however, I do. So I started off with:

    Splinters of lightning ripped through the dark, rages of rain following. Dull thunder, winds ravaging. I paused to determine the faint lines of the shelter ahead. We had planned well, I thought. Yet who was to say what awaited me inside was really about to be, or happen?

    — Any better?

  3. Belinda Grant said:

    This as been such a helpful series, not just for my opening. Looking forward to the last three. Oh how I wish I learnt how to write before I tried writing a novel, so many mistakes to undo.

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