Pub Rants

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

Category: opening pages

The Perils of Waking Characters

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


#NLAquerytip #7

FACT: If you are allowed to submit opening pages along with your email query pitch letter, including the prologue pages will kill your query 99.9% of the time and agents won’t ask for sample pages.

Here’s why:

Most writers use the prologue for the wrong purpose.

* Prologues are written in a different narrative voice than the rest of the novel so do not represent an accurate sample of the writer’s voice for the story. (And usually the voice in prologues are the easy-to-do-poorly distant omniscient third person POV).

* Prologues given are usually the back story for the novel and writers use it as a “crutch” to get started. If you are a writer at the top of your game, you won’t need it.

* Prologues are used as world-building so the reader can understand the world before diving into the story. Once again, if you are a writer at the top of your game, you won’t need it. You’ll build in the world within your opening chapter.

I’ve blogged ad nauseum about this topic so check the side bar archives on “passing on sample pages” and “beginning writer mistakes” for more in-depth details.


Passing on Sample Page Submissions

Not a very original title for a blog post but it certainly conveys the message adequately! I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge lately. There’s just nothing like that excitement of finding a story that makes all your fingers and toes tingle.

I swear, it might be an addiction and why Literary Agents do the job we do!

And I’ve been reading lots of good stuff as of late. But nothing that is quite tipping me into the “must have” realm as yet. Part of what makes this job so fun is that the right manuscript could hit the inbox at any moment.

Adult Steampunk fantasy: PASS – good concept, solid world building, interesting opening scene. And these are the hardest letters for me to write, the story just didn’t spark for me. So not helpful for that hard-working writer but it’s true.

Young Adult SF: PASS – another interesting world, set on a ship, with a nice opening scene. No spark. Argh.
Adult Literary fiction: PASS – Writer has terrific background in journalism. Cool premise. Solid writing. Just couldn’t quite fall into the story and have it keep my attention. My focus kept wandering so I know this one is not for me.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Too gritty for me and I worried that the main character, his nature, was too dark and grim potentially for the YA market. I could be totally wrong but it’s a sign it’s not right for me.
Young adult contemporary SF: PASS – Another sample with good, solid writing. Interesting story concept. Author had an agent previously.  I should be game for it but the narrative just didn’t spark for me.
Adult Commercial mainstream: PASS – Loved the premise. Solid writing but I actually wanted the writing to be more literary than what it was because the concept hook was so commercial. And for me, that was the way to really make the story stand out.
Fantasy Young Adult: PASS – was a bit on the fence with this one. Nice writing. Interesting fantasy world. Gave it a second read and found I wasn’t feeling passionate about wanting to commit to reading a full manuscript.
Adult SF: PASS – a funny science fiction narrative that works! (so rare.) Good writing. Charming and inventive. Just wasn’t quite right for me but I definitely see another agent taking this one on and selling it.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Such a great premise dealing with contemporary YA themes but writing was really uneven and a little too much force on “this is the theme of my novel.”
Adult historical: PASS – Author has great background with winning some accolades. Really liked the time period so sad with this one a bit and reread it. In the end, I felt like I should love it but didn’t actually love it.
Young adult historical: PASS – One of my fav genres and is a popular tale re-telling. Writing felt too stiff and formal (the emotion didn’t match the scene) I couldn’t quite lose myself in the story.
Middle Grade contemporary: PASS – I really wanted to like this one as concept was terrific. Voice didn’t quite nail it for middle grade. Read a bit too adult.
Adult Fantasy: PASS – Really interesting premise for the anti-hero who is main protagonist of the story. Too many fantasy tropes in the opening without enough of a distinctive voice to really make the opening stand out.
Middle grade fantasy: PASS – narrative voice was too adult for the MG audience. World building was a bit heavy in the opening as well. Thought maybe it could work for adult market but it as in the deadly gray area without it being firmly to one audience or the other.
Young adult contemporary: PASS – loved the multicultural aspect of the story. Author has great background as well. This one I just didn’t fall in love with the story and the narrative voice.

What Exactly Is Uneven Writing?

After I did a blog post on Tales From The Submission Inbox, lots of writers asked on twitter and Facebook what exactly I meant by “uneven writing.”

It’s a great question and I’ll do my best to try and answer it. It’s tough though. Because I can always recognize it but it’s harder to describe.

 

Here are three examples:

1) Uneven writing is when an author has some writing talent but hasn’t quite mastered the craft fully. So one sentence will be terrific and then it will be followed by a paragraph of something clunky.

Or,

2) A scene is clipping along great and then the writer stops and throws in back story at a wrong moment that interrupts the flow of the narrative.

and,

3) Writer has some great characterization that’s clear in the scene unfolding and then suddenly the writer tells the reader what they need to know XYZ about this character but they actually didn’t have to. It’s extraneous because it was already apparent in the scene.

It’s good stuff clashing with what I always label, beginning writing mistakes.

 


Tales from the Submission Inbox

Since the start of 2015, I’ve read 30 submitted sample pages and I have another 20 or so to go. I’ve been pretty impressed so far and have asked for 7 full manuscripts. That might be a record for me in such a short time period.

But it also means that I’ve passed on a lot of submissions as well. And they’ve been good so why did I pass? I popped into our electronic submissions database and looked at some of my responses.

Here are some snippets in case you find them illuminating:

“There are a lot of POV shifts and I’m also worried that it’s too quiet.”

“Great concept for the story. Writing too uneven.”

“Nicely written. Quirky characters. Not a story I would pick up and read on my own so just not right for me.”

“Nice writing. Just missing that spark for me.”

“Perfectly fine story but average writing.”

“The writing feels like it’s trying too hard to be literary.”

“Writer nails the voice but there isn’t much driving the plot forward.”

 


The Pesky Scene Break

Last month I did my ever-popular webinar Creating the Road Map for Your Novel. Of the ten participants, half had trouble with a powerful writing tool called the scene break. Now, scene breaks are awesome—unless they are overused or not used for maximum impact.

Why do writers use scene breaks? During the webinar, we came up with several reasons:

  1. To signal a shift in time (for example, to enter and exit a flashback, or to skip over a brief period of time during which nothing plotworthy happens).
  2. To signal a shift in point of view (POV).
  3. To build suspense, leaving one scene at a climactic, cliffhanger moment to switch to a new scene.

(To read some great examples, see Janice Hardy’s article on the topic of scene breaks.)

Here are three things about scene breaks to note:

  • Don’t use scene breaks too liberally. Think of POV as a movie camera. If you are constantly breaking scenes (moving the narrative camera), your reader is going to be pulled out of one scene and dumped into another. If it happens to often, your reader will get whiplash and lose the narrative thread of your story.
  • Scene breaks that signal shifts in time should be used judiciously and only when doing so actually moves the plot forward. Don’t use scene breaks as tools of convenience when they offer no other narrative impact. This type of scene break is the biggest culprit; when it doesn’t work on the page, it creates the most abrupt interruption in the logical flow of the narrative.
  • When breaking a scene to skip a period of time, ask yourself what happens during the time you’re choosing to skip. Are you skipping action that should be on the page? I’ve read manuscripts in which the hero conveniently gets conked on the head during a battle scene, only to wake up (after the scene break) once his buddies have defeated the enemy. New writers who are intimidated by writing action/battle scenes, or scenes in which the hero might have to come up with a brilliant plan to save the day, will sometimes conveniently skip them. Don’t fall into that trap!

In summary, whenever you are tempted to toss in a scene break, ask yourself: What is the function of this scene break? And what, if anything, am I skipping over that should appear on the page?


Top Culprits For Why Agents Stop Reading

Two weekends ago, I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a chance to not only do a read-and-critique session, but also my infamous Agent Reads the Slush Pile workshop.

Doing these classes always provides fresh insight into why I stop reading a submission. Here are the top culprits so you, too, can start thinking like an agent when you read your opening chapters. If you say yes to any of them, time to dig into a revision!

1) Does your opening chapter begin with action, but then stop abruptly so that your character can sit and think or reminisce? About 50 percent of the pages we tackled did just that.

It’s a passive way to begin a story and means you’ve started in the wrong place.

2) Analyze your opening dialogue, and then the exposition that immediately follows it. Does your telling simply reiterate what was already clear in the dialogue?

3) Do you have a prologue? Is it in a different voice or style from the rest of the novel, or does it take a different direction? Is the prologue just an info dump about the world or backstory youthink the reader needs to know? Decide if it’s really necessary to include a prologue, as most agents will skip to chapter one or will stop reading altogether.

4) Do you repeat a fun element that was absolutely funny the first time around, but when it is repeated, it loses impact?

5) Does your opening chapter include nothing but dialogue? Not anchoring the reader clearly in a physical scene is a key culprit for why agents don’t read on. They have no way to imagine the scene.

6) How much of your opening chapter is in the current scene and how much is backstory? Remember that you, as the writer, need to know your character’s backstory, but the reader doesn’t need to know it right away in order to be pulled into your story.


Top 2 Reasons Why I Pass On Sample Pages

Just recently I did a workshop where I had the participants partner with another person in the class and exchange the first 30 pages of their manuscripts. The assignment I gave them was to read the 30 pages all the way through once. After that was completed, to go back and start rereading. On the second read, I asked them to go page by page and outline the plot points in a neat list list by chapter.  I stressed that they were not summarizing the chapter. Simply listing the action found in it.  Then I had them email me the outlines before I started reading.

Those were the instructions and everyone in the class tackled the exercise just fine so I’m confident all of you can do the same.

I’d take a quick glance at the by-chapter outline and as an agent, I’d know what was wrong with the manuscript before I even hit the first page and started reading. I would then read the document to confirm what I already knew. One hundred percent of the time I was right.  I’d say 90% of what we see on submission has these issues so it’s definitely worth taking forty minutes to do this exercise with a writing partner that you trust.

Because the two main culprits that will nix you getting a full manuscript request are these:

1) The work is missing a plot catalyst to really start the story (so there is a lot going on action-wise but no actual story unfolding).

2) There is nothing at stake for the main character.

Happy revising!


It Was Bound To Happen

Well, this is a first. Now that I think about it, I’m actually surprised it hasn’t happened before now.  What am I talking about?

I just received an email from a writer who wanted to gift me his/her self-published electronic book on the Kindle.

It’s a lovely gesture but I absolutely cannot accept. I had Anita send the author an email saying I had to decline and to please get a refund for the gift coupon. If I accepted this, it would open a whole gray area can of worms. It’s probably not what this writer was thinking but an agent could accept the gift coupon, not buy the book in question, and get something else instead. In general, gifts to agents feels like a slippery slope. Better just to say no.

So thanks but no thanks.

Truly, you just need to send us a free query letter by email. We will read and consider it. If I want to read more and I know the title is published on the Kindle, maybe I’ll ask for the mobi file. The writer could then send that.


Groan Worthy

Status: The subway is getting a little steamy in terms of humidity these past few days.


What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? CONNECTED by Stereo MC’s


Several years ago, way before tags were available on blogger, I did a really popular post on openings to avoid when writing fantasy novels.


Last week, I went to lunch with an editor from Tor and LOL, we got to brainstorming other “great” openings. So I’ve got a few to add to the list. Now I wanted to link to that previous entry but darn of I can find it! If anyone has it handy, post in the comments and I’ll embed the link. (Update: here’s the link! Thank you blog readers for finding this entry way back in year 2006!)


From what I remember of the previous list, we saw a lot of fantasy novels with main characters gathering herbs in the forest. Who knew what a popular past time that was? Openings with battle scenes where the reader had no connection to the characters was another big winner.


Sure, any masterful writer can grab any of these “openings” and do them justice but for us mere mortals, they tend to be groan worthy.


The latest contenders:


1. Man sitting on steed in pouring rain.

2. Woman standing on high wall looking out into the distance at something

3. The city chase scene

4. Aftermath of a battle


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