Pub Rants

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

Category: submission

Why I’m So Picky About Fantasy

As someone who not only represents adult and YA/MG SF/F, but also grew-up reading it and continues to read it regularly, I’ve gotten to a place where my standards for these genres are higher than for any other. And, to be clear, science fiction and fantasy are two separate genres. (There are some exceptions.) 

In all commercial genres, writers can fall into relying too heavily on tropes. Certainly there are tropes in mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, science fiction, and fantasy and tropes aren’t bad. But relying on them as the only way to tell a certain type of story inhibits a writer’s ability to infuse their story with their own spin on a genre. I want to see stories from writers who aren’t simply bucking trends and tropes, but who are taking a nuanced approach toward them. Nuance is the key for me in so many things.

Relying on some of the more common tropes can make your work feel dated. Below, I look at some of these common tropes and explain what I look for in SFF—namely, innovative, clever, and forward-thinking approaches.

The Chosen One

We are all familiar with this trope. The hero is destined by prophesy, blood, or something else pre-ordained to save us all. It’s very Highlander—there can be only one. The problem is that this often takes agency away from the hero. No matter what they want, they either have to do the right thing and save the world or do nothing and let the world go to shit. That’s a lot of weight to put on someone’s shoulders, and the narrative often rests on the internal and external journeys our hero takes.

But what if there isn’t only one? What if there are multiple possibilities, and a story explores the type of person who would decide to act versus the type who would decide not to? What if the prophecy is BS? Or the Chosen One discovers that they aren’t really the chosen one and that things were interpreted wrong? I’m eager to see someone play around with this trope and really go all in subverting it.

Half-Breeds

This idea and term are so deeply rooted in white supremacy and racism that every time I read it I cringe. It’s a derogatory term that has long been used to diminish BIPOC, and I am not alone in being tired of seeing it in SFF. Part of the issue is real-world historical context. I can speak as a black woman on this although I know other IPOC have their own history with this term. In US history alone, black people were property and seen as not human. The amount of corruption of someone’s blood with blackness was measured in terms. To see this same concept being used in a fantasy story is disturbing, often because it’s used with such laziness—it’s an instant way to throw obstacles in front of a character and establish personal stakes. But they are imposed and not organic to the story. 

Not to mention that real-life mixed-race/mixed-heritage people exist, and the idea of “half breeds” so overly simplifies what their individual issues might be.

This is where nuance is key. If you are going to create a character who is part of two races, don’t make that their central struggle. Plenty of people of mixed race/heritage live happy lives with supportive, loving parents and extended family. Don’t make your story about the “good” races—elves, humans, angels—getting mixed with te “bad races—orcs, trolls, demons. Don’t make the world so simplistic and narrow minded. If you want to explore othering, start by thinking through the many different ways the people around you, in this world, are ostracized and how that affects them.

Blood Magic

This one is a bit personal. I love the idea of blood magic as a type of magic. But it’s often seen as evil. Why does it have to be bad? Why does any magic system have to be inherently bad? There tends to be a lot of black-and-white, good-and-evil in fantasy. Let’s see what shades of gray look like. Let’s see what blood magic can look like when it’s used for good, evil, and in-between.

Medieval/European/Western Setting

Seriously, we live on a whole giant planet with multiple continents of which only two seem to get featured, geographically and culturally speaking, in most SFF. But on all continents, there are many, many cultural POVs. For instance, telling me you’ve written a story with an African setting doesn’t evoke much; a story set in a fantastical version of Morocco will not present the same geography or culture as a story set in a fantastical version of Nigeria. And there is more than Ancient Egypt to take influence from. It is easy to do a pseudo-European setting. Try harder.

In this area I’m particularly looking for #ownvoices. This is a term mostly used on the children’s side, but I think adult publishing is starting to understand what it means as well. Simply put, it means a marginalized author writing about their own marginalization.

This is why I was so excited to see THE POPPY WAR. I read this book on submission as an editor, so I’m not sure how much has changed, but I remember being wowed by the setting, the characters, and the world building.

I will say, I’m eager to find marginalized SFF authors regardless of whether you write about your marginalization or not. This is, again, where nuance matters. A medieval/European/Western setting from a BIPOC author will likely have a POV different from what we’ve already seen so much of in SFF—namely, BIPOC existing in those settings.

POC in the Future

On that note, one SF and post-apocalyptic trope that really bothers me is the lack of POC in the future. There are so many nuanced ideas waiting to be explored just by placing POC in an enhanced future. Give me more nuanced stories that don’t erase POC from history or the future.

I’d love to see more adult SFF in my inbox. Tastes are subjective, but know that I’m on the lookout for nuanced approaches. Below you’ll find some books that I’m currently reading or that are on my to-be-read list:

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse. I am currently reading. This has Indigenous cultural influences and is written by a Indigenous author. I can count on one hand the number of SFF novels I can say that about. Not only do I want to support this writer so that I can get more SFF stories from her, but I also want to see doors opened for other Indigenous SFF writers. This one feels dark, just like I like it, and seems to have a very flawed but fairly kickass heroine—which is something else I’m finding I’m leaning toward. This is a classic role that you tend to see a male protagonist in, so it’s great to see writers focusing on a variety of three-dimensional female perspectives.

THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton. To be read. So, three female protagonists, all in the standard roles that are typically filled by male protags. They are sisters. They are fighting for the crown. It sounds like we’ll get three very different strategic approaches to accomplishing this goal. I can’t wait!

THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER by K. Arsenault Rivera. To be read. What intrigues me is that it is an epic fantasy based on Asian mythology and has ladies falling in love.

THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson. I am currently reading. It is an interesting take from the perspective of the colonized who want to take down the imperialist from within. Love how assimilation and indoctrination are handled.

THE IMMORTALS by Jordanna Max Brodsky. I’ve read the first book in this trilogy. It is a modern approach to greek mythology. Love the way it centers around a morally ambiguous and pretty brutal female protagonist.

UPROOTED and SPINNING SILVER by Naomi Novik. I’ve read UPROOTED and absolutely loved it!!! Dragons, romance, magic, and a lyrical fairytale/folktale quality. I want to see something like this in my inbox, but from a non-European or non-Western culture. And I’m equally excited to dive into SPINNING SILVER and enjoy more spellbinding storytelling from this author.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mustafa Kurtuldu


The Most Common Pitfalls in Middle Grade Manuscripts

 

Middle grade is a very robust area of the market and an exciting place to be as an author. Middle grade readers (usually ages 8 to 12) are enthusiastic and passionate about books and the writers they love. On the older end of the spectrum, they are on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood, and yet they still have one foot in childhood with a thirst for imagination and adventure. It is a stage in life that lends itself to a wide range of stories and and life experiences and, therefore, it is a very rich and exciting space to write in. There is a lot of room for experimentation and risk-taking in terms of plot and genre. That said, it is also a tricky category to get right.

I read a lot of queries for middle grade: it is a category I truly love and am actively looking to represent. Because of that, I’m going to share the most common pitfalls I see in the middle grade manuscripts I consider, along with some tips for sidestepping those issues in your own writing.

1. Sounding like an adult pretending to be a child instead of using an authentic middle grade voice. This is, by far, the primary issue I see in the middle grade manuscripts in my inbox. It is so important for you to see through the eyes of a middle schooler while you write rather than the eyes of an adult. An authentic voice is vital in middle grade novels and, hard though it may be, you can’t let your grownup perspective seep in. It is immediately apparent when an author isn’t quite attuned to the age group they are writing for. Most often when this happens, authors waver in and out of the character, sounding very young and overly precocious in turns, leading to an uneven tone. Here are some ways to address this problem:

  • Read recent published middle grade in your genre (contemporary, fantasy, humor, historical, etc). By reading similar novels that have successfully found their footing in the market, you can analyze how the authors of those books utilize language and how they portray the age group.
  • Know your audience. The best way to sound like a middle schooler is to spend time with the age group. Listen to the way they talk and the things they talk about. What do they care about? What books are they loving? What is the latest trend? What are they struggling with?
  • Channel the feelings you felt in middle school. The truest thing you can do as an author is capture feelings on the page. The life of a middle schooler in 2018 is very different than the life of a middle schooler was in your childhood, but the feelings are universal. Tap into those feelings as you write and it will lead to a story that is true.

2. Focusing on a moral message. Middle grade readers want to read a story that captures them and brings them on a journey. They don’t want to be preached at. Sure, your characters will learn something along the way, but if you approach your story with an agenda, a middle grade reader will immediately sniff that out and run the other way. Instead:

  • Focus on plot and character development. Make sure that the main character has problems, both external and internal, to overcome throughout the story. If there’s a theme you’d like to explore, don’t think of it from the perspective of teaching your readers a lesson, think of it as discovering a truth that allows your character to grow.
  • Show don’t tell. If you want your readers to walk away with a new understanding of the topic you’re writing about, let them discover it between the lines instead of hitting it home with moments of adult characters lecturing or having your protagonist pause in the story to reflect on a Big Moral Point.

3. Condescending to the reader. Trust that your readers are intelligent and have their own lives, complete with their own obstacles, conflicts, and emotions. Your readers live in the real world and are capable of being challenged and trusted with nuance. (Although sometimes a good fart joke is also called for.)

  • Don’t shy away from challenging topics.
  • Don’t hesitate to use the occasional sophisticated word.
  • Make sure your plot is just as developed and layered as it would be if you were writing for adults. Kids can identify plot holes and inconsistencies just as easily as adults can!

4. Writing from the author’s childhood rather than a contemporary setting. Too often, I see queries that make it clear the author has gone back to their own childhood to tell a story rather than contemporized an emotional truth from their childhood for a modern reader. Kids are looking for stories that resonate with them today–not stories that take them back to their parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods. If you are writing realistic middle grade, put it in a contemporary setting, unless there is a very compelling reason to set the story in a different time.

5. Adults? Keep Out! Make sure your adult characters don’t take over the story. It is completely normal for there to be grownups in a middle grade novel, but those characters should be side characters, not central characters. If you find your adults imparting important life lessons or making choices that help resolve the plot, or if you find that your young characters spend a lot of time observing and thinking about what the adults are doing in the story, then take a step back and look at your arc again. It is vital in middle grade that the protagonist is the character with the central conflict and that your protagonist is also the one to resolve that conflict. If you find your adults taking over, gently put them back in their place on the sidelines. Middle grade is a preteen’s world. No grownups allowed.

Creative Commons Picture Credit: State Library of Ohio


Dispatches from the Trenches: Pitch Wars

It’s my first PitchWars as a featured agent and I did everything I could to get ready. I cleared the decks as much as possible, caught up on queries and submitted manuscripts and was waiting, coffee in hand, at 5 pm last Tuesday when the first requested manuscripts were set to drop in my inbox. An inbox full of professionally mentored manuscripts is like Christmas and your birthday all rolled into one as far as I’m concerned. But I knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. There were over 70 agents participating in this year’s ‘Wars, and we were battling it out over 50 Adult projects, 42 Middle-Grade offering, and 83 YA submissions. It was about as close as any of us would get to a IRL version of The Hunger Games.

For those unfamiliar with PitchWars, it an ingenious program that matches unpublished authors with published author mentors who work to hone a manuscript over the course of a few months and then present those projects to a group of invited agents for a first look. Why do agents love it? Simple—if editors are willing to spend more money on manuscripts that have been edited by agents (and we know they do), it stands to reason that manuscript that have been shepherd by published authors and agents will garner ever more attention in the market. As an added bonus, PitchWars classes create amazing groups of cheerleaders and readers for authors, which is a priceless asset on the journey to publication.

That first night of reading was like an agent slumber party over at NLA—we read, we iMessaged, we read some more. I called it quits around 11:30 pm and by the time I hit my desk the next morning, there were already projects with offers of representation out there. I know, right? How did those manuscripts do that, you may be wondering? And how realistic an experience is getting an offer of rep so quickly for a first-time author?

There were a handful of projects that got snapped up right away. These had the magic combination of stellar writing, pitch-perfect positioning, and a great hook/concept. PitchWars mentees know to be prepared for anything, from immediate offers to waiting. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was that made these project stand out. Here’s my take on the most successful offerings:

Positioning – The PitchWars madness begins during the agent showcase, where authors present a short pitch and excerpt for featured agents to respond to. The projects that got my attention were the ones that possessed compelling positioning sentences. This can be a mash-up (“Tarzan meets Six of Crows”) or a comp (“Perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn”).

Hook/High Concept – As we’ve previously defined it, a high concept is a new twist on an established narrative trope; something that flips a known idea or story on its ear. The manuscripts that received the most requests contained the “It’s {familiar story line}…but {with a twist}” that got us thinking.

Killer Opening – One chapter. That’s what you have to get our attention. Agents are going to try to feel out as many projects as possible in a short amount of time in a situation like PitchWars. I can’t speak for everyone at NLA, but I was jumping in and out of manuscripts to get a sense of how they measured up. If it wasn’t holding my attention after one chapter, I’d move on. Check out Angie and Kristin’s advice here for opening scenes.

Voice – It’s that elusive thing that’s hard to define, but we all “know it when we see it.” The projects that really grabbed me—from contemporary romance to contemporary YA—were the ones that displayed a confident, consistent voice. Not surprisingly, a number of these were by long-time authors, which just goes to show that voice, like anything else, takes time to evolve.

As the adrenaline rush of running headfirst into PitchWars subsides, I found myself thinking about how strange this process must seem, especially for authors watching from the sidelines. PitchWars offers no guarantees, but it can be a game changer if you approach it with the right mindset. Of course, if you didn’t get into PitchWars, does everything I just said matter at all? Absolutely. I’m jumping back into my query inbox today and I’ll be taking all of these lessons with me.


9 Story Openings To Avoid, Part 8

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.
For Part 6, click
here.
For Part 7, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#8) Your novel opens with bodily functions or the weather. 

On average, we receive about 100 queries a day. I popped into our inbox right before writing this article, and sure enough, out of the last 100 submissions or so, about a dozen sample pages opened with either bodily functions or weather.

Before we take a closer look, here’s a quick reminder: This article series is not intended to be a list of openings to never, ever, ever, ever write. Any type of opening can be well executed. We just want to highlight that there are several types of openings that aspiring writers tend to unknowingly overuse, and because we see these openings over and over again, even the well-written ones feel stale. If you want to stand out and be fresh and unique, then this article series is for you! We want to help you steer clear of stale openings…and bodily functions and observations of the weather both fit that bill.

Bodily functions frequently spotted in openings include:

  • Vomiting – This is the #1 culprit: 17 submissions received in the last 6 days opened with vomit in one form or another.
  • Peeing – Pee scenes often follow a character-waking-up scene. They are often but not always written by men, about male characters, and some go into weirdly literary detail, employing such words as glittering, shiny, golden, arc, stream, etc. (Why? Why???)
  • Bleeding/oozing wounds – This is typically either an attempt to (a) establish immediate physical conflict/peril or (b) hook us with shock value or gore porn. If the latter, then hashtag nope.
  • Spitting – Like vomiting, spitting is a piece of choreography that seems to have become a substitute for emotion. While vomiting is supposed to show-don’t-tell readers that a character is very upset, spitting is supposed to show-don’t-tell readers that a character is experiencing disdain or disgust. I think. (Sometimes it’s OK to tell. We promise.)
  • Crying/nose blowing – Like bleeding, this is typically an attempt to establish immediate conflict/peril, but of the emotional rather than physical kind.
  • Farting – Farts sometimes show up literally, and sometimes as idioms, like Billy was as popular as a fart in church. Note that if you write humorous books for little boys, then farting should definitely be part of your repertoire.
  • Masturbating – Seriously. We just read a masturbation opening this morning, within five minutes of reading submissions.

So what is the issue here? Besides the fact that bodily functions are often TM(G)I—Too Much Gross Information—and, therefore, a reading turn-off, they often signal that the writer is working too hard to be edgy or to convey an immediate conflict, yet the conflict is without context because the story hasn’t been set up yet. On one end of the spectrum is stuff I’d rather not know upon first meeting your character; on the other end of the spectrum, bodily functions without context generally don’t invoke emotion in the reader.

It bears mentioning that genre matters. If you write mysteries or thrillers, then your readers expect a dead body or two—usually killed in new, interesting, sick, twisted ways. So sick and twisted that someone in your book might vomit. Give your readers what they want! But think about whether your detective hero really needs to wake up and release a glittering, golden arc of pee into the toilet, blow his nose, and fart before he gets dressed and heads off to the crime scene.

As for starting with the weather, well, it’s certainly been done by many an esteemed author since the dawn of literature. No argument there. And yet therein lies the reason many aspiring writers continue to churn out weather openings. Certainly you can think of a more dynamic way to start a story! Start in scene, with a character doing something in a tense situation, and then layer in details about rain, sun, or approaching storms. As creative beings and literally the gods/goddesses of your own writing universes, we’re confident there are better openings within you.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: mslavick


Is Your Manuscript Ready? By Danielle Burby

You’ve done your research and know the basics of writing an excellent query letter, but what comes next? What happens when that query letter works and an agent requests your novel? At the end of the day, it all comes down to your manuscript. Are you and your manuscript ready for an agent? How do you know? The short answer: Ask yourself whether you’re treating this like a marathon or a sprint.

Once you’ve typed “The End,” you may be tempted to immediately go out and query every agent you can find, but keep in mind that, while it is a major accomplishment to finish writing a novel, even the most practiced authors need to take time to revise. The first draft is where the ideas form on the page, but it is only in subsequent revisions and rewrites that the actual story begins to emerge. Writing, like any other art, is a craft that takes skill and dedication. Keep in mind that you don’t have a deadline. There is all the time in the world for you to work and rework your novel until you have gotten it into the best shape you possibly can.

As you revise, remember that this is your world and you have full control over it. What a liberating superpower! Nothing in your novel is fixed in stone. This means you can have fun and play with everything from characterization to the rules of the world to the stakes and goals that drive the plot.

Some tips for revising:

  • Print out your draft and make notes in the margins to highlight moments that can be improved.
  • Map out the plot, point by point. Poke as many holes in the logic as possible. Re-map and revise.
  • Read the entire novel from start to finish several times, with a different focus each time—plot, character, language, copy editing.
  • Read out loud and listen to your words. Hearing can illuminate writer tics in need of eliminating or monotonous sentence structure. Revise with that in mind.
  • Share it with trusted readers who will push you even farther. If someone has a crazy suggestion, give it a shot! If it doesn’t work, at least you’ve tried it. Revise again. Repeat.

Whichever revision style you choose (and you can choose more than one!), your goal should be to make your book better, stronger, more powerful.

My biggest piece of advice to new authors is this:

  • Set the bar high and take the time needed to get to a masterful final draft.

Too often we get requests from agent-seeking writers asking for a chance to resubmit a now-revised manuscript. Occasionally we may say yes, but more often we have to say no because of time constraints. You might only have one shot at an agent read. Spend it wisely. Remember that each and every draft will make you better at what you do. Keep creating and writing and challenging yourself. Keep running this marathon.


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 7

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.
For Part 6, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#7) Your novel opens with pages of backstory or exposition instead of a scene created to kick off your novel. 

In the thousands and thousands of opening pages we’ve read over the years, we’ve discovered three problematic openers that fit this bill:

  1. Opening with a sentence or two of a scene, but then shifting into pages of backstory or exposition.
  2. Opening with a sentence or two of exposition or backstory, followed by the start of an actual scene.
  3. Opening with heavy exposition, backstory, or world building that goes on for pages without anchoring the reader to a character situated in the story’s narrative time and place.

This type of opening becomes a problem when authors feel the need to fully explain their world before officially beginning the story—they’re afraid that readers will be lost without all the background information. A good intention, but a master writer knows how to layer in her world building and backstory at the same time she is introducing her characters, setting, and whatever situational conflict will launch the story’s momentum.

When I come across a submission like this, I’ll skip ahead to see where—or if—the story actually begins; however, I’m already on notice. This type of false start makes it that much harder for the writer to win me back. You don’t want an agent looking for a reason to say no.

Angie here! Let’s look at some examples.

  • Opening with a sentence or two of a scene, but then shifting into pages of backstory or exposition.

Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations. Marge surveyed their work and gave a satisfied nod. They’d made great progress today.

Marge and her team had flown to Egypt six weeks prior. The university had finally managed to secure the funding for this dig, despite the dean’s oft-repeated assurances that the archeology department would never approve the sum Marge had requested. But over the summer, some anonymous donor had stepped forward and written a big, fat check. Marge couldn’t guess who the donor was, but she was too excited to care. She started calling her team and making travel arrangements…

This type of opening is often crafted by writers who’ve learned that it’s a best practice to start in scene. So they do. But the siren song of expository backstory is still too alluring, and they can’t resist. To see if you’ve fallen prey, check for past-perfect verbs in your opening scene (had managed, had requested, had stepped forward). If you see some, then—RED ALERT!—you’ve probably slipped into backstory.

Let’s look at another example:

  • Opening with a sentence or two of exposition or backstory, followed by the start of an actual scene.

Marge had learned two things during her seventeen years as a university professor. The first was never to take no for an answer, especially when it came from the dean during a conversation about funding. The second was never to question the motives of an anonymous donor who wanted to send you and your whole team to Egypt for three months on an exclusive dig. She was right about the first, but wrong about the second. She was about to find out just how wrong.

Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations…you know the rest.

This type of opening is often crafted by writers who want to provide an immediate insight into character before showing us that character in setting, motion, or conflict. Also note the prophetic “she was about to find out just how wrong.” As far as hooks go, this kind always feels a little too on-the-nose, like the writer is saying, Hey, isn’t that portentous and enticing? Most times, authors need to work a little harder than that to plant the hook that will keep readers genuinely intrigued.

To avoid this type of opening, recognize the difference between scene and exposition/backstory. Practice writing solely in scene. Only then, go back and layer in your exposition/backstory with subtle strokes that are relevant to the current scene.

Kristin here: Of course, like all the examples we’ve given in this article series, any opening can work in the hands of a master writer. My client Sherry Thomas is renowned for her ability to pull this off. Read the opening of her debut novel Private Arrangements to see how she breaks this rule but still manages to get away with it. Her masterful writing sweeps the reader away!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Angie Harms


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 6

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.

Done.

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


9 Story Openings to Avoid: Part 5

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.
For Part 4, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#5) Your novel opens with running or other pulse-pounding action. 

If you are guilty of this one, don’t beat yourself up. We promise you’re not alone. Writers are told they need to start in medias res (literally “in the middle of things”) if they want to grab the reader from page one. Solid advice, but when it translates to action for action’s sake, therein lies the problem.

Just so we’re clear, we’re not suggesting that you nix every bit of action in your opening scene. The problem arises when an opening provides only action to the exclusion of:

  • All other narrative elements, like character, setting, voice, tone, and context. Without context, readers are left wondering, Why is this action happening? Who’s involved? What outcome should I be rooting for? Remember that confused readers might stick with you for a few pages, but if your opening scene introduces more questions than it answers, readers are likely to abandon your tale.
  • Structural relevance. Does the opening action sequence mirror, foreshadow, or lead logically into something that will happen later in the story—for instance, the inciting incident, midpoint reversal, climax, or resolution? If your opening action scene only exists to create excitement that you hope will hook a reader, then you might be in trouble.

The type of opening scene you write relies heavily on your genre. Action-forward openings tend to be more appropriate in commercial fiction, as opposed to literary fiction (which is more about artful language and thematic explorations of the human condition, so literary openings tend to provide immediate insight into a character or immersion into a setting). Genres like thrillers, military science fiction, and romantic suspense lend themselves to action-forward openings, but readers of cozy mysteries, contemporary romance, women’s fiction, and historical fiction expect to be thoroughly introduced to character, setting, and situational conflict when they encounter your first chapter. So consider genre and reader expectations as well as your novel’s overall structure when crafting your opening.

The final takeaway here is that in medias res is solid advice…if you take it to mean “start in the middle of action,” not “start in the middle of an action scene.” Action means (a) there’s a character on your “page stage,” (b) he or she is doing something other than merely thinking (see part 1 of this article series), and (c) he or she is in some sort of enticing predicament.

  • Maybe it’s a 70-year-old woman on her knees in the garden behind her house. It’s raining, and she’s up to her elbows in mud, desperately trying to bury something. Or dig something up.
  • Maybe it’s a scrawny middle-school-aged kid standing in the middle of the gym. The climbing rope hangs before him. His PE teacher stands to one side, arms crossed across his beefy chest, and his classmates encircle him, some cheering him on, others chanting insults.
  • Maybe it’s a married couple standing at the sink, washing dishes. The wife dries the last dish, while the husband calmly turns off the faucet and announces that he wants a divorce.

All of these story openings begin in medias res because they begin in the middle of a situation laden with dramatic tension. We don’t know the nature of that tension yet, but we will happily keep reading because (and this is the important part) each of these situations comes pre-packaged with an impending sense of What happens next? Yet none of these is an action scene.

In contrast, we see a lot of sample pages in our query inbox that start with a character running. An action scene. Sweat pouring. Lungs burning. Muscles cramping. Feet stumbling over rocks and tree roots. The sound of a pursuer’s footsteps ringing out in the darkness. These writers hope we’ll be just as breathless and scared as their characters are. But this type of opening lacks context (which means readers aren’t yet invested in your character’s plight). It’s an opening that’s tough to make fresh because we see it all the time. Plus, it can only lead to one of two possible outcomes: the character will either slip her pursuer or she’ll get caught. That makes this type of scene skim-or-skip material. Worse, it makes false tension out of all the pages the writer devotes to pouring sweat, burning lungs, cramping muscles, stumbling feet, and darkness. And false tension makes readers feel cheated.

What you’re after is dramatic tension, which you can only evoke to the extent that you can make readers understand why this character and why this situation? I’d much rather find out who that 70-year-old woman is and why she’s digging in her garden in the rain! Wouldn’t you?

Study the difference, and then practice creating story openings that entice rather than merely excite. This skill will take you another step further down your path toward storytelling mastery!

Photo Credit: puamelia


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 4

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#4) Your novel opens with a lengthy passage of “talking heads” dialogue. 

Here’s what fascinates me: The openings we suggest that you avoid actually evolve out of a writer’s good intentions. In this case, writers know that starting with dialogue can be a very dynamic way to open a story. Dialogue is inherently more energetic than a description-of-the-setting opening, and if done well, a dialogue-heavy opening can reveal a lot about character(s).

Just so we’re clear, we’re not suggesting that you ax every bit of dialogue in your opening. The problem arises when an opening provides only dialogue to the exclusion of all other narrative elements.

We call this the “talking heads” opening. When two (or more) characters have a conversation for a page (or more), then readers receive no other vital story clues, such as setting, context, tone, background information, or the power dynamic between the characters doing the speaking.

Angie here. Consider the following:

“Did you bring my money?”
“Relax. I brought your money.”
“Where is it? Give it to me.”
“Not yet. We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
“I already told you everything I know.”
“Not everything.”

Any interest I have in this story, or any investment I might feel in the outcome of this conversation, is eclipsed by questions. Where are we? When are we? Are these characters men? Women? Children? Aliens? Talking squirrels? What are their roles in this story and how do they relate to each other? Is one a police detective and the other an informant? Is it two mobsters, one bribing the other? Is one a bully and the other a nerd? Is one a circus clown and the other an elephant trainer? Is this a funny story set in a 1960s Florida retirement community or a disturbing psychological thriller set in present-day Baltimore?

The human brain is hardwired for story, so when you, the writer, leave details up for grabs, the reader’s brain is going to fill them in. It literally cannot stop itself. The longer you withhold basic story information, the more time the reader’s brain has to stockpile incorrect assumptions. That means that when you do reveal story details as you intended them, and readers discover they were wrong, they’re going to get confused, frustrated, and annoyed. They might even abandon your book. And that (brace yourself for some tough love) is not their fault.

Remember that a published novel comes with a title, cover art, and back-cover copy, elements often worked up by professionals. These give the writer’s opening scene context. But with sample pages, all we have for context is your query letter’s pitch paragraph…and often that’s not enough. Approach your opening scene as though you’re writing for an audience with zero context, and you’ll start to think differently about what to include and what to save for later in the story.

For now, take a look at your opening scene. If you’ve got lots of dialogue, make sure it’s balanced with other narrative elements: some details about setting, some evocative word choices that set the tone, some personal details about the characters—not only what they look like, but how they move, react, and behave. For fun, consider this revision:

     Sister Mary Margaret slid onto the empty stool next to mine and tapped the bar. Old Joe uncapped a bottle of Jameson’s Irish and set up her usual double. She threw it back, then motioned for another.
     Without so much as looking at me, she said, “Did you bring my money?”
     “Relax,” I replied, watching Old Joe pour. “I brought your money.”
     Down went her second double. “Where is it? Give it to me.”
     I took a sip of the warm beer I’d been nursing for the last hour. Sister Mary Margaret was known for two things: drinking hard and being late. Scratch that. It was three things she was known for. The third was dealing harshly with anyone who crossed her. I gulped. Sam made himself clear when he sent me in here. No info, no money.
     “Not yet,” I said, trying my best to sound tough. “We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
     Her laugh sounded like gravel in a cement mixer. “I already told you everything I know.”
     I pulled an envelope out of my coat’s inside pocket and slid it toward her. “Not everything.”

Want to try? Craft a brief opening scene from these six lines of dialogue, and then after we repost this article on Kristin’s blog (within a couple weeks), leave your scene in the comments section. Just for fun.

Remember: Please take all the advice we give you in this article series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can make any opening work, even ones we suggest you avoid. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the types of openings we’re sharing with you here often don’t work because they are overused. Avoid them, and you automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile. Until next time…keep writing!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Francois Bester


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 3

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.

For the Part 2 of this article series, click here.

Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers who want to work on craft. During our workshop, we identified several story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers who are looking for representation. Thus, this series of articles was born! Here we bring you the third installment.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”

A common opening-page snafu we often see is when writers spend too much time setting up what is “normal” for the character before leaping into what will make this story/character extraordinary.

We see a lot of opening pages that show a character performing mindless tasks, such as cleaning the house, grooming (getting out of the shower, combing hair, brushing teeth), taking a child to school, collecting the mail, making breakfast, or having conversations that revolve around the mundane. And don’t forget our all-time favorite: a character waking up. (See “The Perils of Waking Characters” Part 1 and Part 2 on my blog for more about why this opening spells trouble.)

Illustrating the normal is not dynamic. In the normal, very little can be revealed about the character or setting. Because of this, we’re also on alert for openings like these:

“Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning].”

“If I’d only known then what I know now…[followed by pages of detail about then].”

These types of openings hint at an inciting incident. But what the writer is really doing here is postponing the story conflict. They’re asking the reader to bear with them through a few opening pages of mundane tasks and details by making a vague promise that there’s good stuff coming later. In most cases, that simply doesn’t work.

The Importance of Voice

Accomplished writers use literary voice to transcend what might be considered mundane. A terrific example is the opening scene of Gail Carriger’s Soulless:

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.

This scene actually does open with a light touch of the mundane, but Carriger’s unique voice draws the reader in. Most importantly, the scene doesn’t stay in the mundane for very long—only two sentences, and then in the third, an unexpected vampire appears. The surprise is not the vampire. He’s actually expected in this world. It’s his attack that knocks Alexia off balance. Every vampire knows Alexia is soulless and therefore renders the supernatural powerless once touched. This persistent vampire doesn’t seem to know this nor does he seem to learn quickly when his power disappears. This is what then grabs the reader and won’t let go. Carriger takes the mundane and uses voice, wit, and a twist to engage the reader…all in the first three pages of the novel.

The Hero’s Journey and the Ordinary World

Angie here. Many writers’ first contact with story structure is the Hero’s Journey. It gets pounded into us at writing conferences and story workshops, and through books on how to plot a novel.

According to the Hero’s Journey (useful to screenwriters, constraining to novelists), we must devote our first few pages to the “ordinary world.” This is supposed to paint a picture of what the hero’s life is like before the Big Boom of the story’s inciting incident. Without the hero’s ordinary world, how will the reader recognize that change has occurred once they reach the end of the novel?

Poppycock.

What this widespread education in the Hero’s Journey has done is fill slush piles everywhere with sample pages full of ordinary worlds. Yet what are agents looking for? Extraordinary. Your best bet for standing out in the slush pile is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible.

Bonus Tip: The Chapter Two Switcheroo

James Scott Bell, the author of some of Angie’s favorite books on writing and revision, suggests that once you finish an entire draft of your novel, go back and swap your first two chapters. So many aspiring writers frontload their first chapters with backstory, exposition, and narrative, saving the action and conflict for chapter two. Sometimes, switching those first two chapters is all you need to do to fix a boring opening. Plant the hook first. Then see how much of the other stuff you really need in order to tell your protagonist’s tale in the most compelling—and extraordinary!—way possible.

Photo Credit: Sherman Geronimo-Tan


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