Pub Rants

Category: submission

Q: Why does the opening character awakening scene of the HUNGER GAMES work when 99.9% of slush pile opening pages do not?

Wowza. With over 7000 people reached on Facebook and untold number of Twitter shares, I obviously hit some kind of nerve. We should entitle these last two Pub Rants blog entries: The Perils of Writing About Novel Openings with Characters Awakening.

So let’s talk about this some more.

I spotted a lot of comments where writers mentioned the opening of the HUNGER GAMES. Fair enough. So let’s take a look at that first paragraph and analyze why that waking up character opening works and 99.9% of what agents are seeing in the slush pile doesn’t.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.  (Copyright: Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games, Scholastic Press 2010)

1) Opening 2 sentences. The importance is not on the character awakening but to alert the reader to what is different from normal.

2) Third sentence. We know Prim is a child and that it’s fairly normal for her to have bad dreams. Right away, in the hands of the master writer, even though we as readers don’t know much else about the characters etc., we know that whatever their life is, easy it is not.

3) The reason for the bad dream. The Reaping. I don’t know about you but I finished the first paragraph with an instant question that I had to know more about. What is the reaping? And why would it cause a child to find comfort with her mother when normally she wouldn’t? It can’t be good. I’m compelled to read on.

So trust me when I tell you that the majority of character waking up novel openings we are seeing in the slush pile do not remotely achieve the narrative momentum achieved in just 5 sentences shown above. The opening scenes we are seeing is literally about a character waking up and not much else. Sometimes they’ll then go to the bathroom to look in the mirror (so as to describe what the character looks like to the reader).

I’m not pointing this out to ridicule beginning writers who may recognize they’ve done this. I’m pointing it out because it’s less about the action (waking up) then about the purpose for starting the novel there. Most slush pile submissions with this construct are not using the awakening character for a compelling purpose.

And thus why agents pass on sample pages with this construct 99.9% of the time.

And here are a couple of other things new writers should keep in mind:

1) Already established authors can get away with an opening that most beginning writers can’t. Why? Because their agent and editor already trust them as writers. Once that trust is earned, you can play with all kinds of constructs or break all kinds of rules and publishing will even embrace you for it.

2) Established authors are not held to the same rules as new writers. Fair? No. But it’s the bald truth. Established authors can dump back story, input too much exposition, or do other lazy writing tactics and their fans will simply forgive them.

If you are first-timer trying to break in, the length of forgiveness is short indeed.

Photo Credit: Vic

OBSERVATION: Beginning your novel with the main protagonist waking up in bed will have agents passing on the material 99.9% of the time.

Here’s why:

It’s an opening we see way too often (not sure why) and 99% of the time, this opening simply is not the best place to launch your story.

1) In general, this action in an opening scene is static (read: uninteresting). It’s a struggle to make it interesting enough to merit beginning your novel here.

2) I’m going to venture a guess that a lot of newer writers don’t know where to begin their story so starting here seems like a safe place.

3) Just trust me on this, there is a better place to begin your awesome story. My suggestion? Connect back to what made you excited to write this novel in the first place and see if you can’t tap into that energy and channel it into your opening scene. Chances are good, you won’t then choose to begin your story with your main character waking up.

And LOL, wouldn’t this make a fun writing challenge? Have already successful, established authors participate and make it a requirement that their story has to begin with character awakening. Could be hilarious. Could be the first time we see a kick-ass opening with this construct.

Photo Credit: James Theophane, Creative Commons

And as further celebration, my original pitch letter to editors when this work was on submission. A couple of things to note:

1) As my letter reveals, UNDER A PAINTED SKY was not the original title. We have Stacey’s estimable editor Shauna to thank for that! It was a great suggestion and way more evocative than Golden Boys. LOL Titles can be tough. As an agent, I either come up with a terrific one right away for the submit or it doesn’t happen until after the book is sold etc. But editors trust me so I know they’ll read the manuscript even if the title isn’t 100% golden. Pun intended.

2) This novel has received a lot of accolades and two STARRED reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Over the last two weeks,  several editors have reached out to me with congratulations and a request for me to keep them in mind for future stories like this. Given how wonderfully this title is coming out of the gate, it’s easy to assume this might have been a slam dunk of a sale when on submission.

It was not.

Putnam really took a chance and with Shauna’s (and Jen Besser’s) wonderful editorial guidance and vision, Stacey worked hard to perfect the story of Sammy and Andy for the novel you get to read today. My fingers are crossed that this is a sleeper hit in the making.

 

Hello EDITOR NAME REDACTED

It was so lovely to see you while I was in New York. As promised after BEA, I’m sending along GOLDEN BOYS by Stacey Lee, a  young adult historical western a la True Grit.

After I had offered rep and Stacey accepted, I dug in to do the slow read. I was worried that my lack of sleep caused by staying up to read the manuscript had impaired by judgment when offering rep. *grin*

Lucky for me, it was just as good, if not better, than the first time I read it! I love love love it! Get ready to hold on to your saddle because I think you are going to love it as much as I do.

After a suspicious fire burns down her father’s dry goods store with him in it, newly orphaned Young San-Li, who goes by Samantha Young, confronts the landlord she suspects of setting the fire. When she accidentally kills him in self-defense, her only option is to hit the Oregon Trail. She knows the law in 1849 will not side with the daughter of a Chinaman.

With a whip-smart runaway house slave at her side, “Sammy” and “Andy” disguise themselves as boys and join a band of young seasoned cowboys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy must evade bounty hunters and hunt down Mr. Trask, the man entrusted with her dead mother’s treasured jade bracelet. When she also falls for West Pepper, a cowboy with no tolerance for greenhorn boys let alone girls, Sammy is convinced that the trail poses more hazards than a demure violinist can handle. 

When the wild West doesn’t prove big enough to hide her, Sammy must choose–avenge her father, forsake the memory of her mother, or embrace a new identity forged in the frontier and forever lose her history. 

Stacey Lee wrote her debut novel GOLDEN BOYS because her great great grandfather was one of the first Chinese to come to California at the time of the gold rush. She wondered how a Chinese girl born in the U.S. during its expansion west would have fared.  This novel won the 2012 Golden Gate award at SCBWI Asilomar Conference. This work is also a finalist in the Chicago North Romance Writers of America Fire and Ice Contest.

Enjoy!

All Best,

Kristin

What I’ve seen in the last 2 weeks and why I passed:

4 Full Manuscripts (2 with offers of rep on the table)

1 – New Adult/wm’s fic. Recommended by a former editor we know well and like. I totally enjoyed the writing but for me, the story didn’t have a foot solidly in one genre or the other. I didn’t have the vision/passion for it so I passed.

2 – Wm’s fic/erotic leaning. Probably one of the more interesting concepts for a story that I’ve seen in a long time. What was interesting is the writing was quite literary but if I were to explain the plot, it would feel like contemporary romance. I went back and forth on that one as so intriguing. I did end up passing despite how smartly it was done.

3 – Middle Grade. Great great concept. But I had reservations that the voice didn’t quite nail the middle grade age range and although cool, a lot of the story felt too sophisticated but not exactly right for YA either.

4 – Middle Grade. Multicultural main character which I love. Great MG voice. Story line needed some work and with my current work load, I was afraid I couldn’t give the author the attention deserved.

5 Sample Pages

1 – Adult literary. Too literary for what I can be successful with. But terrific writing and a wonderful multicultural story.

2 – Young adult. Previously published author with great background. Fun paranormal. Snappy writing. I liked it but didn’t love it.

3 – Adult steampunk. Author had very cool background and the writing was nice but the opening didn’t grab me.

4 – Adult literary. Same as the other above. Too literary for what I tend to have success with. Wonderful multicultural angle though.

5 – Contemporary romance. Previously published author with great backlist and background. I liked it but didn’t love it. With a full client list, it makes a difference on what I’ll take on.

If I can be that succinct. LOL My current workload is as such that I’m not doing a lot of reading right now. That will probably ease up in another month or so. But from what I have read in the last two weeks, here are my sum ups of 7 projects and 7 reasons why I passed.

1) Client referral – Post-apocalyptic adult fiction. Very cool world. Strong writing so the writer has talent but I just didn’t connect with the story/characters.

2) Client referral – adult literary thriller. Really talented writer but the work was very Cormac McCarthy THE ROAD kind of dark. Not my thing. I’m not going to be a good champion for that.

3) Client referral – women’s fiction. I thought it more young adult and asked author if they wanted to revise to be solidly in that realm. If so, I was willing to give it another read.

4) Anita pulled out for me – young adult fantasy. Had the coolest concept I’ve seen in a while but the work wasn’t quite ready. Wrote an editorial letter and asked the author to revise and send back to me. Hope this person does.

5) Client referral – Contemporary Young adult. Another really cool concept inspired by a real event but fictionalized. I didn’t connect with the main narrator which seemed crucial for this story.

6) Prev. published author – adult SF. Cool concept. Good writing. Just wasn’t right for me.

7) Sara asked me to look – Contemporary Young Adult – Good writing but the main narrator had a caustic voice. I wasn’t sure if I could spend a whole novel with that character.

 

I saw this post on Writer’s Digest and it totally cracked me up. Totally reminded me of the buzzword bingo Dilbert cartoon strip. We definitely need to create this for agent rejection speak.

Raises hand. I’m guilty of these two:

1. “I just didn’t fall in love with the work as much as I had hoped.”

An oldie but goodie. I’m sure every writer has heard this one before! Lots of times it’s true though. Sometimes it’s decently written, an interesting concept, but it’s just not speaking to me. I do try and give a personalize comment or two if I read sample pages though.

2. “Although an interesting story concept and some solid writing, I didn’t see this work fitting into my list”

This means I honestly have no idea what to do with the work. It’s outside of my wheelhouse as an agent. Or, I don’t know what the market would be for it or no editors are popping to mind for submit list. Probably another version of this response is “it’s simply not right for me” or “I don’t have a vision for how I would handle this work.”

So why do agents resort to some typical or canned responses? It’s not because we don’t want to be helpful but it’s often a question of time and not wanting to be hurtful if a writer’s work really isn’t ready for an agent to see quite yet. Also, if an agent personalizes responses, invariably writers want to get into a dialogue about the why of it and how they can improve. There really isn’t time for that….

Now like I said, if I read the sample pages, I do try and constructively point out one thing that didn’t make it work for me. Often times I can see another agent thinking differently and if that’s the case, I’ll say so in my response.

There has to be dozens more writers see regularly.

So what other agent rejection responses should go on this bingo card?

What I’ve Said No To Lately

Who says agents don’t read in December right before closing? My colleague Sara offered rep to two new clients right as we were closing. She landed them too! It happens. I’m not sure I added those to the Stats. I need to update.

Not to mention, I miscounted my NYT bestsellers. Oi! I forgot the Manga SOULLESS edition which hit #1 no less. Smack forehead.

But if you are curious, I read 16 sample pages the week before we closed. That’s a marathon for me.

And here’s a general idea of why I passed on all those requested submits: (more…)

On The Last Day Of December

STATUS: The usual. I slammed every day as we wind down to the agency closing on December 14, 2012.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR by Mikey Wax

On the last day of December, my true inbox sent to me:

12    Eggnog Chai’s a-drinking
11    queries reading
10    royalty statement reviewing
9     checks depositing
8    Foreign deals a-doing
7    Payments a-processing
6     full manuscripts left a-reading
5     contracts done
4     calling clients
3     client fulls
2     pecan sandies

And a Party in the New Year!

A heads up if you aren’t on our newsletter circulation or on FB, Nelson Literary Agency is now closed to queries for the holidays. We wanted to make sure we finished reading every query, every submitted sample page, and all the remaining full manuscripts in our queue.

To do that, we closed queries on Monday, December 3. Anything incoming will now get our auto-respond email.

But never fear, we’ll be back in full form starting on January 2 2013. We’d be happy to read your query then.

What Are You Looking For?

STATUS: Doing meetings in New York all week.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? I’M A BELIEVER by The Monkees

Good question. What am I looking for?

Because I’m rewriting content for our new website (and the submission guidelines are an integral part of that), this question is definitely on my mind as of late. Not to mention, when I attend a conference, invariably I get asked this question. By now, you’d think I’d have a good answer ready. To be honest, I don’t.

We also have to answer this question on our new website for our submission guidelines. Since Sara’s answer is different than mine, we are tailoring our “what are you looking for” list for our specific agent pages.

By the way, the launch of our new website is a bit delayed. Our web developer lives in New Jersey. Yep, Hurricane Sandy.  He actually emailed me to apologize for the delay as he didn’t have electricity. Holy cow! No need for an apology there. We can wait a few more weeks.

But back to our website submission wish list. When I sat down to evaluate what I’m looking for, I find that I’m not interested in creating a nice, neat little list.

Right now our site says I’m looking for literary fiction with a commercial bent, commercial mainstream, women’s fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy, young adult and middle grade.

Sure, that’s accurate and true but you know what? That doesn’t quite capture what I’m looking for. I want an intense, well-told story and the “genre” is incidental.

This summer I sold a literary cross-over novel that had a lot of horror elements – BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman.

Look at the list above? Do you see the word “horror” anywhere?

Not exactly. Yet, that story was perfect for me.

My book club is going to read Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL.

That’s totally up my alley. Do you see “thriller” on that above list? Nope. So what I’m looking for is not clearly defined by a neat little list that I can post on our website.

And today I had lunch with an editor from St. Martin’s and a bubble tea with an editor from Random House. (I think the tapioca is still stuck in my teeth…) Both had great previous experience in working at genre imprints earlier in their careers and now, neither is a genre editor per se but both love a big story that has a genre element to it. That’s what they are looking for.

And that’s what I’m looking for.

I have to find a way to say that on my page that outlines my submission guidelines. Not an easy trick. I do know that I don’t plan to post a handy little list because that doesn’t really capture what I’m looking for.

I want a good story well told. How you tell that story doesn’t need to fit in a neat little category.

When Trendy Trumps Publishing Sense

STATUS: Wearing Halloween tights! Of course I’m having a great day.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? SKYFALL by Adele

Don’t ask because I won’t reveal the title as this post is a true rant. *grin*

Last year I saw a YA manuscript on submission. The author had gotten an offer pretty quickly so I had to read right away. I read to the end (which is rare for me) and ultimately I decided to pass. The story had a lot of promise but for me, there was a bit of an ick factor and I thought it needed a ton of work. It also had a bit of a bizarre ending that I couldn’t fathom.  The title went on to sell for big money at auction.

I remember just being astonished. Such a quick sale meant that very little work had been done before submission. In my mind, editors were willing to pay big money for a concept. Well, that’s not the first time that has happened. And it’s definitely not going to be the last.

Maybe I just had sour grapes as I had passed. There’s probably some truth in that. From what I can tell though, the book was published in 2012 and it didn’t do as expected.

Just recently it happened again with another YA title I saw on submission and passed on because I honestly did not think it was young adult novel despite its trendy concept.

I’m so so ready for something new and for editors to get excited about something wildly different!