Pub Rants

Category: Pub Rants – The Blog

Lurking on Twitter, I stumbled on a thread of agents contemplating whether they should stay the course in this career. Some of the chatter echoed a conversation I had just weeks prior, where I said, “Agenting today is way harder than when I started agenting twenty years ago.” Just like that I sent out a request for input from agent peeps asking if they thought this was true. An earful hit my inbox. The consensus? Yes, agenting as a career is significantly harder than it was when we were baby agents. Here are fourteen reasons why.

Before I dive in, the requisite disclaimer: The information contained in this article is purely anecdotal and does not claim to represent an appropriate dataset for completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or even timeliness. I emailed a bunch of agents I knew, asked a question, and folks responded. That’s the level of “research” I did. This article is definitely not intended to be advice or a substitute for advice from, you know, a real expert or professional on the topic nor should any reader make a career decision or follow a particular career strategy based on content here. For further guidance, feel free to shake a Magic 8-Ball. 

More Agents Agenting

Although the Writers Market phone book was huge back in the day, the number of agents actively agenting and doing regular books deals is higher today—especially in children’s and young adult—than it was twenty years ago. I recall only about thirty of us repping in the field in the early 2000s. I don’t know the number today, but it’s probably 100 or more. Also, many editors have made the move to agenting in the last five years. With more agents in the field, more submissions are hitting editor inboxes. (Conversely, there are also more agents leaving the industry. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a query that begins, “My agent has recently left the industry so I’m looking for new representation.”) Still, the bottom line is that more agents are agenting in 2021. 

Agents Acting More Like Editors

A project has to be close to perfect for a buy, so an agent today is doing far more editorial work pre-submission than back in the day. In the early 2000s, many an editor would take on a super promising manuscript and do the editorial work after acquisition. Today, it’s more common for an editor to request what is called a revise and re-submit—which places the onus back on the agent and author to gussy up the manuscript in hopes of an actual acquisition. 

This is a large time investment that may or may not result in a buy—and the subsequent earned commission, which is the only way an agent gets paid. 

Crowded Social Media Means Lower Agent Visibility

In 2006, I launched the blog Pub Rants. There were only two other literary agents blogging then. (Remember the amazing Miss Snark and her George Clooney crush? Such fond memories!) As one of the first agents to really spend hours educating aspiring writers and providing insider information for free on my blog, I was happy to see Pub Rants grow in popularity. At one point it was listed as the top 100 most influential blogs in the U.S. Glory days indeed. Blog Pub Rants = Visibility. These days, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are crowded with social-media savvy agents and editors. That makes it much harder for agents to create visibility for their brands or stand out and land the hot projects.

The Marketing/Publicity Agent Hat

In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success. This limits the number of clients an agent can take on and work with successfully. Since agenting is commission-based, fewer clients means fewer sales, and that can impact an agent’s earning potential. 

The Taskmaster That Is Email

The sheer number of emails an agent fields in a day is impressive. For me, three hours minimum just reading, responding, handling everyday agenting tasks. Then I take a deep breath and dive into the actual to-do list. Three hundred emails is a light day. Dedicating so many hours to this necessary business task impacts how many hours are available for other aspects of agenting. When I started my career, email was certainly around, but it was used secondary to a phone call, and when it was used, editors would often email once a week with a summary round up. The pace of business is simply faster now with immediate responses often necessary. Not to mention editors of the current generation who are comfortable with the immediacy of email communication. There is no going backward, but email volume does make agenting harder in terms of a daily workload. 

Going Indie

Authors might start in the traditional publishing realm and then move indie—which eliminates a source of income for the agent. As most folks know, I’m hugely supportive of authors and indie publishing, but the loss of talent to the indie sphere does impact an agency’s bottom line and makes an agenting career more difficult to sustain. 

Publisher Payment Mandate

In the early 2000s, every contract I negotiated specified advance payments in halves: half on signing and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. An agent earns the commission at the same time a client is paid. Publishers are now citing “corporate mandates” that payments must be structured in four or five installments—and some of those payments aren’t coming in until after publication…which makes it no longer an “advance,” but that’s a topic for another day. Not only does this structure impact an author’s financial well-being, it impacts an agent’s ability to earn a living. Imagine negotiating a contract today and knowing that a portion of your commission won’t be paid for two years. Yep. A get-rich-quick path agenting is not. 

The Great Contract Slow Down

Publishing houses need to double their contracts departments. Most of them have two or maybe three people total for the hundreds of contracts they do in a year. Back in the day, I’d wrap a contract in eight weeks tops. Today, if the first draft arrives within four months, it’s a win. And then the agent still needs to review and negotiate it, all before the author signs. Six months is the new norm to fully executed. So add that into the agent’s earning timeline along with payment structures in fourths and fifths. The real question is, just how is an agent earning a living?

The Great Publishing Contraction

Just this week, news hit that Hachette is buying Workman. Yet another independent publishing house bites the dust. Consolidation of pub houses = limited submission options. Limited submission options = titles less likely to be acquired. Titles less likely to be acquired = less revenue for the author and the agent. This alone makes agenting a harder career. 

The Great Submission Influx

Spend a little time on Twitter. Just a quick lurk will reveal that editors are drowning in the number of submissions they are receiving since more agents are submitting material. When I started agenting, I’d receive almost all editor responses within four weeks. Today, months is not unusual, and the number of no-editor-responses has risen significantly. Slow or no editor response = manuscript less likely to be acquired. Manuscript less likely to be acquired = reduced number of agent deals. Reduced number of agent deals = lower commission earning. Lower commission earning = harder to attain agent career success.

The Death of Editor Autonomy

Back in the day, individual editors had more autonomy to acquire a work/author. They connected with their boss, and that one person said yay or nay. In today’s world, a project submitted to a publishing house has to go to second reads, then editorial board, and then it has to run the gauntlet with sales and marketing for the final verdict. It actually feels like a little miracle any time a book sells. 

Blockbuster Mentality

In the early 2000s, it was understood that any newly launched author might need space and time to grow. Historically, authors weren’t expected to conjure bestsellers straight out of the gate, but to build their writing skills and audience over time as they developed their craft. Now, if a debut doesn’t do well, it is extremely hard to get the author a second chance. This is compounded ten-fold if the initial deal had a high advance. That means the agent must work extra hard to relaunch that client and will again face a low return on the hours they invest.

The Death of The Mass-Market Format

Back in the day, so many agents got their start representing authors in romance, mystery, and urban fantasy—all genres traditionally launched in the mass-market format. Fantastic glory days were when I would sell in a debut romance author for six figures. Today, with the death of the mass-market format, a whole swath of a viable market and its associated earnings disappeared for agents. The replacement ebook edition has not enjoyed the same robust earnings impact.

The Change That Hasn’t Happened

Publishers, despite emphasis on social change in the last couple of years, have not expanded their readership outreach or marketing to reflect the current cultural landscape. This continues to mean fewer opportunities for agents and authors of Color. This should be the one area where it’s better for the agents of today, and it’s not. 

So Magic 8-Ball, is agenting harder today than it was twenty years ago?

Answer: Without a doubt. 

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Whenever a new story breaks about an established literary agent behaving badly, I cringe. Although I’m not personally responsible, it’s another black-mark moment for this profession that I love. So what responsibility do agents have to protect writers, and what can writers new to the publishing world do to protect themselves?

The answer is surprisingly simple: be armed with knowledge. Agents with integrity should provide information in a public sphere whenever possible, and many do via Twitter, blogs, and newsletters. Writers should gather all they can but also know that things change. Be kind to yourself, as it might not be possible to have “known better” if an agent partnership does not go as planned. 

As an agent who has spent the last fifteen years putting information out there for writers (since I started Pub Rants in 2006), I hope to arm you with info about agent types you might want to avoid. By the way, I highly recommend that writers looking for an agent have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, where you can do your research. A lot of heartache might be avoided with a little time spent there.

The Schmagent

This type of agent is easy to define. This scammer pretends to be an agent, charges fees for everything a normal agent just does as part of the job (i.e., reading fees, submission fees, marketing fees, etc.). The red-flag word here is “fees.” When writers spot that, it’s an instant tell that the agent isn’t legit.  In 2013, Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and I were expert witnesses for a lawsuit to take down a scammer masquerading as a literary agent. This person fleeced unsuspecting writers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It’s lucrative, which is why there are so many schmagents out there.) It’s a bit like whack-a-mole, but we put this one out of biz. By the way, Victoria is a tireless advocate for writers, and she doesn’t get enough props for everything she has done and is currently doing. Send her a note, or better yet, buy one of her books. It’s thankless, time-consuming work, and she is an amazing human being. In the internet age, this type of agent might be easy to spot, but scammers still snare unsuspecting writers all the time. If this describes your experience, don’t spend time berating yourself. Scammers are pros at what they do. 

The Hobbyist

This type of agent might mean well, but they pursue this profession for the “celebrity” of the job. This might not make them a bad agent per se, but it also means they probably aren’t a great agent either. How do you spot one? Well, this can be tough. The Hobbyist might have a great presence on social media, but if you dig in to the research (thank you, Pub Marketplace), the Hobbyist will not have a strong track record of sales or will only do deals with small presses or for digital rights only. And so I’m clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing deals with small and digital publishers. I’ve done many in my career, but they should be balanced with regular/bigger deals to Big Five publishers and the well-established indie publishers. 

The Greenie

Some agents might have integrity but are simply too green (and don’t have access to mentorship) to be able to advocate for a client.

Back in 2008, there was an agent who racked up many six-figure deals under her own shingle. She came on the scene quickly, and after two years, exited quickly and without warning. She looked hot on paper with all those deals, but her clients were signing boilerplate publishing contracts with no negotiated changes. This agent had no prior experience at another agency, and it was a nightmare for those clients later in their careers. 

For the Greenie, the key is to look at the agency itself. How long has that agency been in business? What is the agency’s track record as a whole? This will help you determine whether this newer agent is in a place where they will receive guidance from a more seasoned agent. 

The Blindsider

This is the agent that all the research in the world can’t predict. This agent might have a terrific beginning to a career, and then that career publicly derails. You will never be able to spot this one coming. Writers, go into an agent partnership expecting the best. But if the worst happens, try and let go of any self-blame. You did the best you could with the information available when forming the partnership. 

Also keep in mind that some agents are acting with integrity but might simply be a bad fit for certain authors. Communication styles or personalities don’t mesh. My client Courtney Milan tackled this convo recently on Twitter, so give it a look in case you find it helpful. 

As an agent, I’ve put many an article out there trying to assist writers in arming themselves with knowledge. I did a whole series of articles on what makes a good agent well as an article on 5 Questions Authors Don’t Ask but Should when considering an offer of representation.

One final comment. As an agent, I wish for no more black marks on my beloved profession, but I’m also practical. Another news article will probably be just around the corner. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

Online Writing Events: What’s Working? What’s Not?

This week, the New York Times started publishing a series of articles under the heading “Six Months In,” looking at what we know now (and are still waiting to learn) after half a year of confronting COVID-19. That got me thinking about my friends in the writing world. We’re six months in, and our favorite writing conferences and conventions have been canceled, postponed, or made virtual. Writing is a lonely endeavor anyway, and it seems it has become even lonelier.

Or has it?

All of us at NLA have participated in myriad online events in the last six months, from one-hour Q&As to multi-day virtual events complete with pitch appointments, critique roundtables, social rooms, and dozens of workshops keyed to various learning tracks. We’ve witnessed event organizers innovate in some pretty commendable ways. The occasional tech glitch and Zoom learning curve aside, it’s actually been pretty great.

But I want to hear from you—all of you writers out there who have participated in online writing events and communities in the past six months. In our new virtual world…

• Are you more involved with writing communities, less involved, or the same?

• Is pitching to an agent or editor online more stressful or less stressful than it is in person? Why?

• Are you connecting with the same folks you were connecting with in person, or have you branched out and networked with new folks?

• How has your critique group adapted in the age of COVID?

• What types of online events have attracted you to participate, and how did they catch your eye?

• What could online-event organizers do to improve writers’ experiences, or what types of things do you wish would be offered?

• Have you attended virtual author readings or book-launch events? If so, what’s worked? What hasn’t?

I want to hear from you! Leave a comment with your thoughts down below. Next month, I’ll report back on the virtual writing world through your eyes…six months in.

(Unfortunately, our newsletter redacted the email we included to receive your responses. Please use the comment section to share your thoughts with us!)

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Ralf Steinberger

Agents and editors are always saying they want a high-concept story, but what does that mean? And if you don’t have one, can you still land an agent and sell your book?

The definition of high concept is difficult to pin down because it involves a certain level of the X-factor—that specialness that defies definition. In other words, conversations about high concept often end with I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but I know it when I see it. So instead of searching for a definition of high concept, let’s look at some of its features:

High concept is built on a unique idea/hook that makes the agent sit up and say, “Whoa! I’ve never read any stories like that before!” or “A story like that has never occurred to me!”

High concept is easy to explain/pitch in one or two sentences. What makes a high concept so appealing is that it immediately gives the listener a very clear idea of what to expect from the story. Some examples:

  • Teen girl at a secret spy school meets a normal boy and hides her identity while falling in love. (Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You, the first book in the Gallagher Girls series)
  • Woman witnesses something shocking from the window of her train and may be the only person who can tell the police the truth. (Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train)
  • After a spin-class head injury, Alice forgets the last ten years of her life, including the births of her children and divorce from the love of her life. (Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot)
  • A female med student auctions off her virginity online. (Brenna Aubrey’s At Any Price)

High concept is appealing to a wide audience. This is a big reason agents and editors want high-concept projects. They are easier to sell! The commercial value of the story is immediately apparent in that brief, one- or two-sentence description, which makes it easy for agents to pitch to editors, for editors to pitch to the sales team, for the sales team to pitch to booksellers, and for booksellers to pitch to readers. High-concept stories are easy to market. Essentially, a high-concept book sells itself.

High concept involves high stakes. Not every story is high concept, and that’s okay. But if the feedback you consistently get on your work is that it is “quiet” or that the agent just didn’t fall in love, it’s possible that a high concept is the thing you need to pull ahead of the pack.

High concept values action and plot over introspection and backstory. Think movie adaptation here. What are your novel’s “movie trailer moments”—periods of high conflict or tension? If you can’t identify a handful of them right off the bat, and if your novel is more about your characters’ inner lives (thoughts, emotions), then you’re probably not writing a high-concept story. And that’s OK, but now you know the difference!

Here’s one (but not the only) recipe to help you play with generating a high-concept premise: “It’s [trope or familiar story or storyline]…but [with a twist].” A favorite example is “It’s a Western…but set in space” (Firefly). Or “It’s Emma…but set in an over-the-top 1990s high school” (Clueless).

Once you have your high concept, the story is what you make of it! If you are an author who wants to write big, commercial, action-packed plots, you can do that with a high concept. If you’re an author who would prefer to write deeper stories that tackle issues, you can do that, too. The high concept is about getting people through the door. Your unique, individual, execution is what will make readers continue to turn the page

Gone Hollywood

I used to dream about about this town (Supertramp anyone?), but now I just wish I could have a month free from tackling a film or TV contract. And yes, I realize I’m whining about a good problem to have.

This summer I did seven book-to-film deals. (I’d like to clarify here that NLA does not represent screenplays or screenwriters. We only sell the film/TV rights to projects for which we have also sold the print/digital rights to a publishing house. I definitely do not want a stream of screenplay queries after this article goes live.)

Film/TV contracts tend to be 40 to 50 pages long and often require many rounds of negotiation before the contract is final and ready to sign. Studios hate to give in on requests because the biggest issue in Hollywood is that every contract sets precedent for the next—and neither side wants to get stuck with a deal term that will later come back to haunt.

So film/TV deals are quite sexy (for the author), but the time investment for the literary agent is significant. Most literary agents work with a film co-agent to shop and place film/TV rights, but I’ve negotiated and closed deals sans co-agent in conjunction with my entertainment attorney.

All this to say that even if a film co-agent is on board, it is actually the literary agent’s job to negotiate the heck out of the author’s reserved-rights clause in a Hollywood contract. Who better understands the publishing agreement than the original agent who brokered the publishing deal? I speak from experience: there are lots of changes that can be made in a Hollywood contract, and if your agent is not getting significant changes, author beware. You might want to engage an experienced entertainment attorney to act on your behalf during the contract negotiation.

The Anatomy of a Reserved-Rights Clause in a Film/TV Contract

Now let’s chat about the anatomy of a reserved-rights clause in a Hollywood contract. (There’s no way to tackle every aspect of a Hollywood deal in one article, so I see a series in my future!) The first thing that should be included in this clause (which, by the way, spells out which rights the author gets to keep, i.e., which rights are not being granted to the studio upon signing of the contract) is, rather hilariously, a hot-button topic during negotiations. I’m talking about novelization rights.

Think about it. The novel already exists because this is a book-to-film or book-to-TV deal! Yet the studios always try to get the right of novelization to the movie. As we all know, whether we like it or not, a film can vary greatly from the original novel on which it was based.

So just how can a studio novelize a film when the novel already exists, and they, in fact, based their production on that novel?

The answer is simple. They can’t. Novelization must be a right reserved to the author. Some studios literally won’t allow that, so we have to do an odd workaround—we have to “freeze” novelization rights so neither the author nor the studio can pursue. (Side note: this does not impact the original novel the author wrote, as that is already in existence.)

Yep. If you are thinking that is pretty ludicrous, I’m in total agreement with you. But that’s Hollywood.

Next month, I’ll chat about reserving all publishing rights in this important clause and the one publishing right we’ll actually allow as it’s good for the author and the studio.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Eva Luedin

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

We had such a blast chatting about the 9 story openings to avoid, we didn’t want the fun to end. So here’s a bonus installment for all you fantasy writers out there!

Your fantasy opening pages might be in trouble if…

#1) Your novel opens with an easily recognizable fantasy genre trope.

Ages ago, Writers Digest asked dozens of agents what story openings they saw too often. Agent Kristin cited the fantasy trope of gathering herbs in the forest. Turns out that’s still a pretty popular opening—and therein lies the potential problem. Why? Because opening with an established trope might make your story feel too familiar or not original enough, and you definitely want an agent read beyond chapter one.

Every genre has its established, easily recognizable tropes, and, technically, there’s nothing wrong with choosing one for your fantasy story’s opening. (In fact, we’re sure readers can cite plenty of examples of established authors who have done it, and done it well.) We’re not arguing that trope-openings (tropenings?) should never be done. We just want to make you aware of a few so that you can very carefully consider whether an easily recognizable opening is the best or most effective opening for your story.

So here’s a handy list of Fantasy Opening Tropes To Carefully Consider:

  • Gathering herbs
  • Walking into an inn or tavern, noting all the patrons, ordering a tankard of ale
  • Leaving an inn or tavern, immediately saddling or mounting a horse
  • Escaping/sneaking through a castle
  • Tracking/hunting, or otherwise carefully aiming a crossbow at something/someone
  • Training for combat, often with swords
  • Being summoned to appear before the council or the queen/king
  • Confiding in a servant, your one and only friend
  • Defying your parent, who just so happens to be the queen/king
  • Fighting in a massive battle scene, about which the reader knows nothing
  • Tending a sick sibling or parent
  • Tending an injured stranger, who even in their fevered, half-conscious state, is undeniably alluring
  • For other tropes, don’t miss Mallory Ortberg’s “How To Tell If You Are in a High Fantasy Novel.”

When can you use a trope? When you are going to put a very cool, original spin on it that will really make it stand out. For example, Patrick Rothfuss opens his bestselling debut, The Name of the Wind, in an inn. But it is not a typical fantasy inn, full of road-weary soldiers or scheming elves or drunk dwarfs or buxom serving wenches. It is an empty inn, and Rothfuss masterfully imbues his opening scene with tons of atmospheric detail that sets the tone for his whole novel:

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

Note that Rothfuss even nods to the typical inn/tavern fantasy trope, calling out the “conversation and laughter,” the “clatter and clamor.” But by contrasting that familiar “tropey” inn with his own silent inn, he’s basically telling the reader This will not be the typical fantasy you’ve seen a thousand times before. This story is something new and different. And you know what? The rest of the novel delivers on that promise, which makes this a fantasy opening very masterfully crafted.

Gentle reminder about sharing this article series: You are welcome to share this article series as long as (1) it is not-for-profit, (2) you attribute to Kristin Nelson and Angie Hodapp of Nelson Literary Agency, and (3) you link back to our original articles on the Pubrants blog. If you would like to physically reprint any of the articles in a newsletter, magazine, or book, please email query@nelsonagency.com for permission.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Elliott Brown

All 9 Story Openings To Avoid in one handy post for easy linking. Happy Reading!
 
(Hint: if you are an NLA newsletter subscriber, you didn’t have to wait weeks for the final article. Just sayin.’ Head to the NLA home page and click on the “newsletter” button at the bottom of the page: https://nelsonagency.com )
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if… Your novel opens with main character alone & thinking. Here’s why
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#2) Your novel opens with White Room Syndrome (WRS). Here’s why.  
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#3) Your novel opens with the “mindless task” or “everyday normal.” Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#4) Your novel opens with lengthy passage of “talking heads” dialogue. Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#5) Your novel opens with running or pulse-pounding action. Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#6) Your novel opens with prose problems i.e. flowery or overly descriptive verbiage. Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#7) Your novel opens w/pages of backstory/exposition instead of scene Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#8) Your novel opens with bodily functions or the weather. Here’s why
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#9) Your novel opens with pithy wit or wisdom. Here’s why.
 
And bonus openings to avoid might be coming soon. You’ve been warned. 
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Ted Eytan 

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.
For Part 8, click here.

I bet you thought this day would never come. At long last, we are tackling the 9th opening to avoid.

And I have to admit that in the months since we started this article series, we’ve probably come up with another 9 openings that could spell trouble—so alas, perhaps this installment is not the finale. Regardless, thank you so much for reading each article, leaving comments on Pub Rants, and taking this journey with us. We’ve been delighted and humbled by the amount of love this article series has garnered on Twitter, Facebook, et al.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#9) Your novel opens with pithy wit or wisdom that will become the story’s theme. 

As we’ve been saying all along, it’s not that you can never use this type of opening. We’re especially delighted when writers leave examples of successful novels that open with something we’re suggesting that you avoid—of course something must be done before it can be overdone. So our intent has always been to highlight for you what’s become overdone, to point out that we see a ton of openings that rely too heavily on this construct. Any overdone opening can prevent your original work from standing out. When we are looking at thousands of submissions a year, it’s easy for this opening to get dismissed. Simply proceed with caution.

Examples of first lines that employ pithy wit or wisdom that will become the story’s theme:

  • “Two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s what I learned the summer I turned sixteen.”
  • “My grandmother always told me ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Boy, was she right.”
  • “If only I knew then what I know now.”
  • “My father’s favorite saying was ‘the key to failure is trying to please everybody.'”
  • “Life is like playing the violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”

There are a couple cautions with these types of openings. First, look at the first three bullet points above. With these, you risk zapping tension for your reader. How? Well, as James Scott Bell says, readers read to worry. We read because we want to (a) watch your character achieve or fail at a particular goal in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and (b) find out if your character will learn/grow/change as a result of the struggle. So when you open with your protagonist basically proclaiming, “Hey, here I am on the other side of the struggle, and I’m OK or I wouldn’t be here to tell you the story, and by the way, here’s the lesson I’m going to learn by the end,” then readers already know too much and we have an excuse not to be that super worried about him. Tension zapped.

Second, look at the fourth and fifth bullet points above. These types of “proverby” openings tend to lack context. They’re “narrative camera pulled way far out” openings; you haven’t introduced me to your character yet, and I don’t know what conflict she’s facing, so I feel plopped down in the middle of some stranger’s life philosophy. That means my eyes are going to skim right over this kind of thing to search for where your story actually starts.

In sum, to truly judge how well an author executes a “pithy wit or wisdom” opening (something employed more often in literary works than in genre fiction), we’d have to look at what comes next. We’d have to see how it frames whatever scene or narrative follows. But again, if your goal is to stand out in the slush pile, then avoid opening with writing that a slush reader might consider skim-or-skip material.

And as a fun counterpoint to this series (and because we do have a sense of humor), why not check out Max Winters (Exes) 10 Writing Rules You Can (And Should) Break.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Brett Jordan

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

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