Pub Rants

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

Category: opening pages

#2 Reason I Pass Even If The Writing Is Good

Writers tend to assume that good writing trumps all when it comes to getting an offer of representation. Not true. Here is the #2 reason I will pass on a full manuscript even if the writing itself is stellar (for any of you who don’t read my blog, Pub Rants, see the #1 reason here):

Lack of story conflict for the protagonist.

To put this another way, the main character doesn’t have enough at stake to drive the story.

I recently read a full manuscript in which the writing and world building utterly charmed me. I loved spending time in the space the writer had created. But I arrived at the end of the novel and realized that being charmed was all there was to it.

Even if the writing and the world are charming, no stakes means no conflict. Why is that a problem? Because no conflict means no story. Conflict—or what’s at stake for the main character—is the engine writers use to tell a good story.

In this particular case, I did write up a lovely but short revision letter outlining my concern. I shared that with the author, along with an invitation to revise and resubmit. I’ll be delighted to give that one another look.

Still, the novel would have been stronger had the writer nailed this necessary element the first time around. It’s harder for an agent to read with “fresh eyes” the second time.

So remember, writing talent + story conflict = masterful manuscript.

Photo Credit: Ken & Nyetta


#1 Reason I Pass Even If The Writing Is Good

I’m not sure this has ever been said aloud….

For submissions, I’m pretty certain that writers assume that if the writing is good, an agent is going to be interested in offering representation to the author.

No doubt–good writing is essential but as an agent, I’ve passed on any number of submissions that exhibited some stellar writing. Why? Doesn’t talent trump all? Nope.

The #1 reason I pass on manuscripts with good writing is because of a lack of pacing.

Just recently, I read a submission where I thought the writer was extremely talented. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that the beginning seemed ponderously slow. I gave up before page 100 despite some lovely lyrical prose on the page. I glanced at the query letter again and there it was, the word count for the story. It was well over 100,000 words for a project that needed to come in more around 80,000 words.

Yep, that confirmed it for me. The plot pacing was way off. Sadly, I just didn’t have enough time in my schedule to try and take on such a big edit to fix it.

So remember, writing talent + pacing = masterful manuscript.

Photo Credit: Marc Falardeau


Fixing These Three Mistakes Could Transform Your Manuscript

With the fall leaves, I finally wrap up four months of travel and two wonderful Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrator (SCBWI) conferences. I’m delighted to be spending the rest of the year right here in Denver.

As a participating agent at the two SCBWI events, I enjoyed doing several read-and-critique sessions. I read participants’ opening sample chapters, then sat down with each writer for a one-one-one discussion.

While doing these critiques, I made a big discovery: I repeatedly wrote the same three comments in the margins. Three beginning-writer mistakes that if resolved could significantly improve the writing.

Here they are:

  • Less is always more. Why say “a grin wiggled and danced across her face” if “she grinned” would suffice?
  • Beginning writers often try too hard with language. If you are always trying to include a perfect turn of phrase in every paragraph, then when you really need one, it won’t stand out. Here’s an example:

The breeze danced across my face, brushing my skin like the gentle tap of a woman’s fingertip, caressing my skin like a kiss.

It’s too much, and it’s all clumped together in one sentence. Even if the writer split it into several sentences, it would still be overkill for a scene moment in which all the reader needs to know is that there’s a breeze.

  • Anchor the reader in the physical space of the scene setting. I see lots of dialogue coming from a disembodied voice floating around in the ether of scenes that lack physical descriptions to solidify who is speaking and from where.

That’s it! Three easily solved craft issues that can make you a significantly stronger writer.

Photo Credit


Perils of Waking Character Openings – Take 2

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

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

So let’s talk about this some more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Vic


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?


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