Pub Rants

Category: Beginning writer mistakes

Your Protagonist Must Fail

Throughout your story but especially in Act II—that yawning abyss between your story’s beginning and end sometimes referred to as “the swamp” or “the mushy middle”—your protagonist must fail. They must fail big. They must fail often. Why? Because if they’re not failing, they’re not trying.

Try-Fail Cycles
Try-fail cycles are a great way to test the weight-bearing capability of a story’s structure. Often, a weak story—one likely to collapse under the scrutiny of discerning readers—lacks try-fail cycles. These are exactly what they sound like: a character faced with a problem formulates a plan, then carries out that plan (try), but they are outmatched, or an unforeseen obstacle pops up, and the attempt is unsuccessful (fail). They fall back, lick their wounds, consider the added threat of the new obstacle and the new stakes that have been raised, and formulate a new plan…thus launching the next try-fail cycle.

Try-Yes-But Cycles
Not all try-fail cycles end in complete failure. The alternative is the try-yes-but cycle. Here, the protagonist carries out their plan, and some or all of their attempt is a success (yes); however (but), that success comes at a high cost, with some unforeseen and devastating consequence. This is the two steps forward, one step back effect, and while your protagonist might not have failed per se, the outcome still feels like a failure to readers because the stakes have been raised, the tables turned, and the jeopardy heightened.

Suspicion-Confirmation Cycles
The enemy of try-fail and try-yes-but cycles is the suspicion-confirmation cycle, which is inherently passive and uninteresting. This happens when a protagonist has a suspicion that rather quickly, usually within a few pages and through very little action, gets confirmed. For example, the suspicion “I think Jack is the one who betrayed me” is confirmed in the next scene when the protagonist passively overhears Jack colluding with the bad guys.

This is not to say that your characters should never have suspicions or work to confirm them. On the contrary! But it is not uncommon for newer writers to construct entire manuscripts on suspicion-confirmation cycles in lieu of the other types of cycles. Having a suspicion is not the same thing as attacking a problem head-on or being forced to actively react to an opponent’s unexpected maneuverings. Know the difference. In your own manuscript:

• Be aware of how many scenes are largely dialogue or internal rumination about what your protagonist suspects, or that culminate with the articulation of a new suspicion.

• Be aware of how many of those suspicions turn out to be correct. Newer writers let their characters be correct most of the time, if not every time.

• Be aware of how soon after a suspicion is formed it is confirmed, and how soon after it is confirmed a new suspicion is formed. You might be stuck in the suspicion-confirmation cycle.

• Be aware of how hard you make your protagonist work to confirm a suspicion. Make it challenging. Make it active. Make it fraught with jeopardy. Make it come at a cost.

• Be aware of how many suspicion-confirmation cycles you’ve used in relation to how many of the other more active and interesting failure-based cycles you’ve used. In commercial fiction, you’ll be miles ahead of the field if you build your story’s structure on the latter, using the former sparingly.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Paul Keller

(Just a note, this article was featured in our April 2020 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I think we could all use some Harry Potter in our lives right about now, so this month, I’m going to chat about what I personally consider the most important part of plotting, using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as my example. 

No matter what stage your manuscript is in, there are three questions you need to be able to answer:

  1. What is your protagonist’s internal conflict?
  2. What is the manuscript’s major external conflict?
  3. How do those two conflicts work in harmony?

All too often, I see internal and external conflicts that don’t work together the way they need to. Here’s the secret: Your external conflict and internal conflict should be tightly woven together because the external conflict exists as a mechanism to force internal change and growth in your character.

For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s internal conflict is that he feels like an outsider. He is alienated from the muggle world, but doesn’t feel like he fits in to the wizarding world either. His interactions with the Dursleys make him feel as though he doesn’t have a family. His interactions with Malfoy and Snape make him feel ignorant about the wizarding world. Even the more positive starstruck reactions of people like Fred and George, Professor Quirrel, and Hermione all drive home the fact that Harry is an outsider from every angle. 

The external conflict in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(and in most of the individual HP books) concerns Voldemort trying to return. In this case, his plan is to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone and use it to gain immortality. This conflict with Voldemort is set up from the very first pages of Harry Potter and is repeatedly planted in an escalating fashion throughout until it culminates in the final battle.

If you analyze the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it is actually very tightly woven around these two conflicts, which are constantly in a dance with each other. For example, Voldemort’s history with Harry is the reason Harry was sent to live with the Dursleys, and it’s also the reason he is an outsider in the wizarding community. Voldemort is actually the causeof Harry’s internal conflict. 

By the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, you see Harry feeling more confident in the wizarding world and at Hogwarts. You see him overcoming his external conflict with Voldemort (for now) and becoming a hero of the school and, in doing so, winning the House Cup for Gryffindor, which symbolically cements his place as someone who belongs. If you analyze the plot, it is both a riveting adventure and a story that serves Harry’s internal conflict and ultimate growth from an orphan who doesn’t belong to a confident boy who has embraced his birthright as a wizard and discovered his found family in Ron and Hermione.

And that, my friends, is how Harry’s external conflict (Voldemort) both causes his internal conflict and ultimately forces his growth.

You should be able to do this with any manuscript you love—including your own! So as you turn back to your editing, writing, reading, etc., ask yourself how well the external conflict is dancing with the internal conflict.

Happy writing! 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kate Ter Haar

Many of you are probably querying or preparing to query. Maybe you’re between agents. Whatever the case, I wanted to give a bit of an overview of the things you should keep in mind as your writing career progresses. Much like any relationship, finding the right agent, editor, publisher, etc., can be hit or miss. Everyone has the best intentions and hopes things will work out, but no one can predict the future. We enter into what we hope will be longterm partnerships after a phone call and a series of questions, questions that can never address every possible scenario. Sometimes, the partnership just doesn’t work, which is fairly common in publishing. Regardless, here are some things to consider.

Editorial vs. Non-Editorial Agent. At this point most, if not all, agents are editorial. It has become a significant requirement that agents polish clients’ manuscripts before taking them out on submission. Still, there are a variety of editorial styles. Some agents just edit the first 50 to 100 pages and then include big-picture notes. Some do extensive line and developmental editing and also include an edit letter. Some may only do an edit letter. You can ask an agent what their editing style is, but their answer won’t really matter until you know what style works best for you. Try to get a variety of peer edits in various styles. If one works better for you than another, you know exactly what you’re looking for. If they all work, excellent!

Brainstorming/Concept Collaboration. How involved in the creative process would you like your agent to be? When we go out on sub, I have my clients send me five ideas for their next project. I then give them feedback and tell them which idea(s) make the most sense to pursue based on the market and what editors have told me they’re looking for. My help in walking through a concept is one of the reasons my clients chose me as their agent. Is this something you would need as well? Would you also want feedback as you draft—say, on the first 50 pages so you know you are headed in the right direction? If so, then ask potential agents if this is one of their strengths.

Career Management. In addition to helping with concept building and brainstorming, some agents also give career-management advice. This is helpful if you want to switch gears, perhaps moving from adult to YA or vice versa. An agent can guide you through that career transition, which might include rebranding you as an author or launching you under a new pen name.

Negotiations. How does your agent/agency negotiate? You don’t want to work with someone who is too soft and may push back only lightly. But you also might be turned off by someone who is too aggressive. It is fair to ask an agent what kinds of deal and contract terms they might fight for on your behalf and why. You might not care as long as they can get you a solid book deal, but negotiation is a huge part of what an agent does, so it never hurts to be aware of how your potential agent handles it.

Personality. Lastly, is personality important to you? What kind of personality are you looking for in an agent? Do you want someone friendly? Personable? Is it okay if they only contact you when necessary? Do you want someone patient who will answer all your questions no matter how many you have or how often you ask? Do you want a hand-holder? A shark? That’s a fair thing to want to discern. And agents might not know themselves where they fall. Reach out to their clients. Even if you are just querying and don’t have an offer or rep, you might be able to piece together some clues based on what clients say about their agents online or in the acknowledgments of their books.

Now that you know some agent-seeking basics, you can research confidently. There is still no guarantee that you’ll find the perfect fit for your entire career, but this will certainly help you figure out what you really want at this early stage.

Good luck!

Creative Commons Credit: Apichart Meesri

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

When I was first looking for a job in publishing, I was fresh out of college and had a sparkling, perfect, carefully curated resume filled with everything a potential employer in this industry could want. I’d started interning in publishing the summer after my freshman year and had continued to land competitive internships in the field every year after that while waitressing at night and on weekends to make money. I had joined relevant clubs in college, taken classes that demonstrated a longstanding and dedicated interest in books and the craft of writing, used my school’s alumni network to build industry connections, and maintained a strong GPA. In short, I was the ideal candidate.

And yet.

I landed interview after interview after interview and was repeatedly told it had come down to me and one other candidate, that I had been absolutely perfect and charming and qualified, but that they had gone with the other person in the end. Agencies and publishers were knocking down my door to offer me unpaid internships, but I was having an impossible time finding someone who would offer me a salary. I worked at a farmer’s market and got a second part-time job in education, and I continued to intern at agencies even though I was beyond tired of giving away my free labor. I was used to my hard work paying off, and this seemingly endless slog to land a job was utterly demoralizing. When I finally did land a position as an assistant at an agency, I’d been looking for nine long, agonizing, months. I was overjoyed and so incredibly relieved, but also exhausted and surprised by how much harder it had been to get my foot in the door than I had expected it to be. It wasn’t easy to keep my hopes and spirits up through those rejections.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter what side of publishing you’re on; this is a difficult and competitive industry that requires a combination of patience, hard work, talent, good timing, and luck. You will face rejection. There’s no way around it. Even authors who are apparent overnight successes have had to work hard over time and have been rejected again and again. It only takes one yes, but, in the meantime, how can you stay centered through the inevitable no’s?

  1. Remember what is in your control and what isn’t. You can control the development of your craft and the quality of your manuscript. You can’t control a reader’s reactions to said manuscript. Whether the reader is a friend, an agent, an editor, or someone who bought your book from their local indie, that reader will have opinions, and they may or may not like your work. Focus on the praise you get and try not to linger on the rejections and criticisms. But, most of all, constantly push yourself to improve your craft. The stronger your writing is, the more you will hear yes.
  2. Start working on the next project. It is easy to get wrapped up in refreshing your inbox and counting down the days until you hear back from an agent or editor, but staring at your inbox won’t make anyone read faster and will only stress you out. It is much better for your stress levels and more productive for your future if you shift focus to the next book you want to write. If you get an offer, you’re going to have to write another book to follow up the first. If you don’t get an offer, you’ll have to write another book to try again. Either way, you have to write another book, so why not start now?
  3. Cultivate non-book hobbies. Yes, ideally, you should be widely read in your genre and stay up on the latest books and the hottest authors and have an awareness of the bestseller lists and improve your craft…but, if you let it, the business of books can consume all your free time and energy. Don’t let it! Whether it is hiking or pottery or playing with your dog, make a concerted effort to do other things for yourself that have nothing to do with books. It is good for your mental health. Plus, your writing will be more interesting if you are out there having experiences!
  4. Develop friendships with other writers. Your spouse and yoga buddies lend a sympathetic ear, but they probably don’t know exactly what it feels like to pour your heart and soul out in 75,000 words and hold it up to a stranger for their brutal scrutiny. Other writers, on the other hand? They are all too familiar with that extreme vulnerability that is, more often than not, met with a no thank you. This is your commiseration tribe that will lift you up when you are down. Find them and support each other.
  5. Nourish your passion. Yes, this is a business and a career, but it is one that is artistically driven. It is easy to get burnt out when you face a series of rejections. It is easy to get down on yourself and lose connection with the reason you write, but, fundamentally, you have undertaken this rollercoaster of an endeavor because you have a fire in you. You have something important to say with your writing. You are an artist. It is vital for you to stay connected with that part of yourself because that is where the art lives. Keeping your passion in sharp focus is important when you are running the marathon that is publishing—it will help you push through the harder moments so you can find your success.

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

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

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 [email protected] 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: http://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