Pub Rants

Category: opening pages

Starting A Novel In The Wrong Place

STATUS: Just another manic Monday.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? RED RIVER VALLEY by Frank Macchia and Tierney Sutton

This weekend was an interesting one for me. I read our slush pile for the first time in several years. Grin.

What do I mean by that? Well, I hired Sara Megibow more than four years ago and once she was fully trained, she read all incoming submissions to set aside the ones that I actually needed to review. In other words, I read only a third of all the actual submissions that came to the agency.

As we train Anita, somebody needs to read behind her to make sure she’s forwarding the right submissions on to Sara and to me. Anita will become the reader of all things while Sara and I can have a reduced workload. There isn’t enough time in the day for us to read ALL incoming submissions.

So this weekend I read eleven different sample page submissions and one salient point became very clear. There are decent writers out there who are totally starting their stories in the wrong place which can obscure what the novel is really about. If I’ve read 30 pages and it’s clear to me that we still haven’t gotten to the right beginning, it’s a pass.

So the biggest writing culprit writers need to watch for that will indicate a story starting in the wrong place?

Back story.

One submission had several scenes that weren’t really relevant to where the novel actually started—which was in chapter three (around page 27). The opening scenes were essentially back story—info the writer needs to know but the reader doesn’t. Back story needs to be integrated throughout the novel in a masterful way.

Second biggest culprit?

Minutiae.

In other words, the writer is overcompensating for the wrong beginning by including beginning scenes with too much detail about the characters and all the underlying tension of the relationships so all that is clear before the novel can “begin.” The details are certainly good to have but they are placed in scenes that don’t actually move the story forward. In other words, the only purpose of the scene is to introduce characters. Then by chapter three or four, suddenly we have the actual story.

I know this is happening when I read and think, not bad writing here but this author needs some judicious editing as I’m getting bogged down in details but the story isn’t actually moving forward with momentum and tension.

Writers who are actually ready for agent submission have mastered the art of seamlessly integrating back story and relevant character details into a plot that moves the story forward.
Those who haven’t are probably getting passes on sample pages and no requests for the full (although an agent might highlight there is decent writing on the page).

And I know what you are thinking. Why can’t agents just say this? Because it would take too much time to point it out and clearly illustrate it. That would be critiquing the manuscript which is too time-consuming.

Which is why I’m trying to use this blog entry to point this out. I know examples would help but I don’t have permission from submitters to use their work on this blog.

ps. Thanks for all the embed songs into blog tips. I’ll check out the sites and see what I can start using.

Opening Pages–Action

STATUS: Heading to the mountains to ski. It’s supposed to snow. Fresh Powder

What’s playing on the iPod right now? VERTIGO by U2

Because we’ve been talking about openings, what works, what doesn’t, I wanted to show you an example from an author who is the master of action in the opening pages. Nobody does it better than Linnea Sinclair.

I would also recommend reading this author, even if this isn’t your genre, in order to learn about escalating conflict. Beginning writers often suffer from the fact that they don’t have enough conflict to drive their stories forward in a meaningful way.

Linnea is the master conflict, of raising stakes continuously through her novels. In fact, she often teaches a workshop on doing just that.

So let’s take a look at the opening of GABRIEL’S GHOST. Notice how she balances the action with setting (paragraph 1 & 2). Then in paragraph five, she raises the stakes even within this scene. Sprinkled throughout this opening paragraphs are key details on where our main character is (prison planet), who she was (fleet officer), why she is there (the court martial).

Folks, this is top-notch writing. In fact, you have to nail it this well for genre fiction or it just doesn’t work. I’d like to think you need to nail a form of this for literary fiction too—something aspiring literary writers often forget. Learn to write a plot-driven scene. You won’t use it the same way as one does in genre writing but it will teach you solid pacing—something a lot of aspiring literary works lack.

CHAPTER ONE
Only fools boast they have no fears. I thought of that as I pulled the blade of my dagger from the Takan guard’s throat, my hand shaking, my heart pounding in my ears, my skin cold from more than just the chill in the air. Light from the setting sun filtered through the tall trees around me. It flickered briefly on the dark gold blood that bubbled from the wound, staining the Taka’s coarse fur. I felt a sliminess between my fingers and saw that same ochre stain on my skin.

“Shit!” I jerked my hand back. My dagger tumbled to the rock-strewn ground. A stupid reaction for someone with my training. It wasn’t as if I’d never killed another sentient being before, but it had been more than five years. And then, at least, it had carried the respectable label of military action.

This time it was pure survival.

It took me a few minutes to find my blade wedged in between the moss-covered rocks. After more than a decade on interstellar patrol ships, my eyes had problems adjusting to variations in natural light. Shades of grays and greens, muddied by Moabar’s twilight sky, merged into seamless shadows. I’d never have found my only weapon if I hadn’t pricked my fingers on the point. Red human blood mingled with Takan gold. I wiped the blade against my pants before letting it mold itself back around my wrist. It flowed into the form of a simple silver bracelet.

“A Grizni dagger, is it?”

I spun into a half-crouch, my right hand grasping the bracelet. Quickly it uncoiled again—almost as quickly as I’d sucked in a harsh, rasping breath. The distinctly masculine voice had come from the thick stand of trees in front of me. But in the few seconds it took me to straighten, he could be anywhere. It looked like tonight’s agenda held a second attempt at rape and murder. Or completion of the first. That would make more sense. Takan violence against humans was rare enough that the guard’s aggression had taken me—almost—by surprise. But if a human prison official had ordered him… that, given Moabar’s reputation, would fit only too well.

I tuned out my own breathing. Instead, I listened to the hushed rustle of the thick forest around me and farther away, the guttural roar of a shuttle departing the prison’s spaceport. I watched for movement. Murky shadows, black-edged yet ill defined, taunted me. I’d have sold my soul then and there for a nightscope and a fully-charged laser pistol.

But I had neither of those. Just a sloppily manipulated court martial and a life sentence without parole. And, of course, a smuggled Grizni dagger that the Takan guard had discovered a bit too late to report.

My newest assailant, unfortunately, was already forewarned.

“Let’s not cause any more trouble, okay?” My voice sounded thin in the encroaching darkness. I wondered what had happened to that ‘tone of command’ Fleet regs had insisted we adopt. It had obviously taken one look at the harsh prison world of Moabar and decided it preferred to reside elsewhere. I didn’t blame it. I only wished I had the same choice.

I drew a deep breath. “If I’m on your grid, I’m leaving. Wasn’t my intention to be here,” I added, feeling that was probably the understatement of the century. “And if he,” I said with a nod to the large body sprawled to my right, “was your partner, then I’m sorry. But I wasn’t in the mood.”

A brittle snap started my heart pounding again. My hand felt as slick against the smooth metal of the dagger as if the Taka’s blood still ran down its surface. The sound was on my right, beyond where the Taka lay. Only a fool would try to take me over the lifeless barrier at my feet.
The first of Moabar’s three moons had risen in the hazy night sky. I glimpsed a flicker of movement, then saw him step out of the shadows just as the clouds cleared away from the moon.


His face was hidden, distorted. But I clearly saw the distinct shape of a short-barreled rifle propped against his shoulder. That, and the fact that he appeared humanoid, told me he wasn’t a prison guard. Energy weapons were banned on Moabar. Most of the eight-foot tall Takas didn’t need them, anyway.

The man before me was tall, but not eight feet. Nor did his dark jacket glisten with official prison insignia. Another con, then. Possession of the rifle meant he had off- world sources.

I took a step back as he approached. His pace was casual, as if he were just taking his gun out for a moonlit stroll. He prodded the dead guard with the tip of the rifle then squatted down, and ran one hand over the guard’s work vest as if checking for a weapon, or perhaps life signs. I could have told him the guard had neither. “Perhaps I should’ve warned him about you,” he said, rising. “Captain Chasidah Bergren. Pride of the Sixth Fleet. One dangerous woman. But, oh, I forgot. You’re not a captain anymore.”

With a chill I recognized the mocking tone, the cultured voice. And suddenly the dead guard and the rifle were the least of my problems. I breathed a name in disbelief. “Sullivan! This is impossible. You’re dead—“

“Well, if I’m dead, then so are you.” His mirthless laugh was as soft as footsteps on a grave. “Welcome to Hell, Captain. Welcome to Hell.”

Why Prologues Often Don’t Work

STATUS: Not happy. Still no Amazon links to Macmillan client books.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HUNGRY FOR YOU by The Police

Kristin’s incomplete list of why prologues don’t work:

1. When the sole purpose of the prologue is to fill the reader in on the back story so the real story can begin.

This is so easy to point out but harder to explain.

In the example of UNDONE, Brooke needed a prologue to show how it all started. To juxtapose who the girls were when they first “meet” versus who they are when chapter 1 begins. The prologue also serves a strong purpose. It sets tone, character, and sets up several questions. Why did Kori become a “I-puke-cheerleaders-for-breakfast” kind of girl? Something has happened but what? Why is Serena obsessed with her by her own admission? And it’s very clear that these two girls have nothing in common in this bathroom scene yet Kori calmly states that they are more alike than Serena knows. They are connected.

This is a prologue with a clear purpose. The reader should want to know more by the end or it doesn’t work. It’s also masterful. Brooke managed to accomplish quite a bit in just 4 short paragraphs and this leads me to the second reason why prologues often don’t work.

2. They are too long.

This is the death of a manuscript if a writer has problem #1 and then it’s combined with problem #2.

3. When the prologue is in a whole different style or voice from the rest of the manuscript.

Then when chapter 1 begins, readers are left flummoxed—especially if that style or tone of voice is never revisited.

4. When the prologue is solely there to provide an action scene to “draw the reader in” but then serves no other purpose or is not connected to the main story arc or is only loosely so.

5. When the prologue introduces the evil character simply so the reader can “know” what is at stake.

I can sum this up in two words. Clumsy writing.

6. When the prologue is supposed to be cool (or I might reword this to say the writer thinks it sounds cool).

Lots of writers overwrite when creating a prologue. It shows.

When all of the above is happening (and there are probably a dozen more reasons why prologues often don’t work), it becomes really clear that the writer isn’t paying attention to dialogue, character development, plot pacing, etc. All key elements of good writing.

This is why almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages. A beginner writer might actually be able to do good character, dialogue, tone, pacing, and whatnot but it’s more than likely not going to show in the prologue.

Now in defense of the prologue, when it’s done well, it’s truly an amazing tool. The number of times I’ve seen a prologue done extraordinarily well in requested submissions? Well, I can count that total on two hands….

Opening Pages (While We Wait For Amazon To Quit Shooting Themselves In Foot)

STATUS: It’s 7 pm so I’m ready to head out the door and to home.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SAILING by Christoper Cross

Since I’ve been obsessively checking about every hour, the answer is no, the links to my Macmillan client books have not been turned back on. In talking with an editor at Macmillan this afternoon, she said she had no new news to report. Nor had John Sargent made another company-wide announcement. I hope for news tomorrow.

However, I did derive lots of enjoyment out of reading John Scalzi’s posting on the issue.

Meanwhile while we wait for Amazon to get head out of sphincter since they are throwing a tantrum over earning more money rather than less with the Agency commission model, I figured I’d jump back into our opening pages discussion.

Today’s entry is, thankfully, from a non-Macmillan author whose trade paperback edition just released this week.

Now please remember that when I share opening pages, I’m not sharing the polished final pages one will find in the published novel. I’m sharing the opening pages as I received them upon first submission when I requested the full manuscript. Sometimes that changes for final publication, sometimes not.

I’m going to have a blast with today’s entry. As most agents will tell you, it’s usually a waste of time for a writer to include a prologue when submitting sample pages. The prologue usually has a different voice or approach then the rest of the novel and is often a bad barometer of how the manuscript will unfold.

Not so in the case of Brooke Taylor’s UNDONE. This is an excellent example of how a prologue can completely set the tone. In fact, it can give you chills as a dark prelude of what’s to come. It can completely nail character. In this instance, for our narrator and for her best friend who is the driving force in the novel despite not being there for more than the first third of the work.

In fact, Jay Asher, NYT bestselling author for 13 REASONS WHY calls UNDONE, “A beautifully intense story. Brooke Taylor hooked me with the very first line and never let go.”

As to that very first line, I have to agree with Jay. And I’m sharing it with you right here.

Prologue:
My best friend Kori came with a warning label—a black t-shirt that read: “Don’t believe everything you hear about me.” I was staring openly. Gaping. Gawking my geeky little eighth grade eyes out. I’d expected the bathroom to be empty when I charged in with blue dye from an ill-fated lab experiment soaking through my Ruby Gloom t-shirt. I never expected Kori Kitzler to be standing there, tapping a cigarette out of a red and white box and asking me if I had a light.
My mouth dropped wide open. I don’t know which startled me more— that she really thought I smoked (At school!) or that she was actually speaking to me. From the moment Kori had transformed herself from squeaky-clean cheerleader-wannabe seventh grader to I-puke-cheerleaders-for-breakfast eighth grader, I was fascinated in her beyond any sane boundary.

I looked away, down, my eyes stalling on the warning stretched across her larger-than-most chest. I’d heard a lot of things about her. I’d heard that before school even started, she’d already had oral with half the junior high football team. I’d heard she dropped E with high school boys and had a three-way with two college guys. I’d heard she cracked a Tiffany lamp over Chelsea Westad’s brother’s skull just because he told her she couldn’t smoke pot in their house. I’d heard she threw up on the arresting officer and had lesbian sex while in the holding tank. I’d heard that while the rest of our class was singing Kumbaya and making really crappy jewelry at summer camp, she was pretending to dry out in rehab. And I’d believed it all.

In response to her smirk, I braved direct eye contact. In the almost black of her eyes—like two shots of espresso, just as dark and just as deceptively calm—I expected to see my fascination for her spat back at me. But I didn’t. Under lazy, half-moon lids, her eyes were soothing, almost hypnotic. And in them I saw a serrated edge that offered its own version of protection and danger.

“You don’t know it now.” She paused to take a drag (she had a light after all). “But you and I are connected.” She held the cigarette out for me. As I took it, a seductive curl of smoke rose up like a ghost between us. “We’re more alike than you think.”

Hooked? Then let’s make a statement. Buy this book today but let’s not buy it from Amazon. I’d like to suggest Powell’s—a wonderful independent bookstore with a fabulous online presence. They even do free shipping!

Opening Pages (cont.)

STATUS: It’s after 7 pm again and I’m getting ready to leave the office.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE’S LIKE THE WIND by Patrick Swayze

Today I want to share some opening pages that are all about voice. Some authors have really distinctive voices and often the deciding factor is not whether the writing is good or not but whether the voice fits an agent’s taste.

For me, Gail Carriger’s SOULLESS is a perfect example. This is a really distinctive voice aptly demonstrated by the opening pages. It’s either going to be your cup of tea (pun intended as anyone who reads and loves Gail’s work will get the joke immediately) or it won’t.

It’s obviously fits in my teacup just fine.

Chapter One: In Which Parasols Prove Useful

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she’d retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.

She glared at the vampire.

For his part, the vampire seemed to feel their encounter had improved his ball experience immeasurably. For there she sat, without escort, in a low-necked ball gown.

In this particular case, what he didn’t know could hurt him. For Miss Alexia had been born without a soul, which any decent vampire of good blooding knew made her a lady to avoid most assiduously.

Yet he moved towards her.

This would have been unsurprising with any non-vampire, for Miss Tarabotti generally kept her soulless state quite hush-hush. Miss Tarabotti wasn’t undead, mind you. She was a living breathing human, just…lacking. But it was just too much of a bother to explain soullessness to the ill-informed masses. It was a moot point on most occasions anyhow. The members of the social circles she frequented never noticed she was missing anything. Miss Tarabotti seemed to them nothing more than a standard English prig, whose spinsterhood had been brought about by a combination of assertive personality, dark complexion, and overly strong facial features. Miss Tarabotti telling people she lacked a soul would cause general awkwardness at best. It was almost, though not quite, as embarrassing as having it known that her father was both Italian and dead.

Alexia was shocked to find, however, that this vampire appeared not to know the details of her character, and actually continued to approach her. The supernatural set always knew she had no soul. They kept detailed records of those born preternatural. People like Miss Tarabotti were dangerous: soullessness cancelled them out. As soon as they touched her: whoosh – they were no longer supernatural at all.

In this particular instance the vampire came darkly-shimmering out of the library shadows with feeding fangs ready, touched Miss Tarabotti, and was suddenly no longer darkly doing anything at all. Just standing there, the faint sounds of a stringed quartet in the background, foolishly fishing about with tongue for fangs unaccountably mislaid.

Miss Tarabotti, having escaped the jaws of that worst party-going evil – society matrons en masse – was most disgruntled to find herself under attack in her library sanctuary.

The vampire got over his foolish lack of fangs quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia and her unexpected effect on his supernatural state, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Contact broken, his fangs reappeared once more. Clearly not the sharpest of tacks, he then dove forward from the neck like a serpent, going for another chomp.

“I say!” said Alexia to the vampire. “We haven’t even been introduced!”

Miss Tarabotti had never actually had a vampire try to bite her before. She knew one or two by reputation of course, and was friendly with Lord Akeldama. Who wasn’t friendly with Lord Akeldama? But no vampire had ever actually attempted to feed on her.

So Alexia, who abhorred violence, was forced to grab the miscreant by his nostrils, a delicate and therefore painful area, and shove him away. He stumbled over the fallen tea trolley, lost his balance in a manner astonishingly graceless for a vampire, and fell to the floor. He landed right on top of a plate of treacle tart.

Miss Tarabotti was most distressed by this. She was particularly fond of treacle tart and had been looking forward to the consumption of that precise plateful. She picked up her parasol. (It was terribly de rigeur for her to be carrying a parasol at an evening ball, but Miss Tarabotti rarely went anywhere without it.) The parasol was a style all of her own devising: a black, frilly confection, with purple satin pansies sewn about, and buckshot in its silver tip.

She whacked the vampire right on top of the head with it as he tried to extract himself from his newly intimate relations with the tea trolley. The buckshot gave the parasol just enough heft to make a deliciously satisfying ‘thunk.’

“Manners!” instructed Miss Tarabotti.

And since I don’t answer questions often but felt this one was particularly apropos to tonight’s blog entry, I’m making an exception.

A.L Sonnischsen asked:

So here’s my question: when is it okay to let a character tell about him/herself? Why did this particular example not make you, as an agent, stop reading? Is it because it’s so well-written? Or does an excellent writer know instinctively how much to tell (a little narrative to get an idea of the voice, but not too much)? Or, maybe I don’t understand what telling vs. showing really is?

A.L. You have answered your own question. Telling vs Showing is all a matter of balance in the narrative. We need enough tell to orient the reader so we aren’t confused but then we need enough show so that whatever has been told about the character is revealed completely in the unfolding scene.

Gail does this marvelously in these opening pages. Paragraph 1 has a light touch of telling to set the scene. Then she leaps right into showing her spinster in a action. Five “paragraphs” later (as some are just one sentence long), Gail dips into quite a bit of telling but note she keeps her distinctive voice and all the info given is necessary for the rest of the scene to unfold.

That might be the biggest answer to your question. Only tell when it’s imperative to do so in order to move the story forward. Here Gail knows it’s imperative to explain a bit of Alexia’s soulless state. If she doesn’t, the reader might not understand why this vampire attack is such a surprise—in the context of this world she’s building.

When agents pass on sample pages becuase of too much telling to start, it’s because the writer hasn’t understood the importance of telling and when it’s best to interject it.

And as an aside, isn’t Alexia captured absolutely perfectly on the cover?