A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry
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:
There are a couple cautions with these types of openings. First, look at the first three bullet points above. With these, you risk zapping tension for your reader. How? Well, as James Scott Bell says, readers read to worry. We read because we want to (a) watch your character achieve or fail at a particular goal in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and (b) find out if your character will learn/grow/change as a result of the struggle. So when you open with your protagonist basically proclaiming, “Hey, here I am on the other side of the struggle, and I’m OK or I wouldn’t be here to tell you the story, and by the way, here’s the lesson I’m going to learn by the end,” then readers already know too much and we have an excuse not to be that super worried about him. Tension zapped.
Second, look at the fourth and fifth bullet points above. These types of “proverby” openings tend to lack context. They’re “narrative camera pulled way far out” openings; you haven’t introduced me to your character yet, and I don’t know what conflict she’s facing, so I feel plopped down in the middle of some stranger’s life philosophy. That means my eyes are going to skim right over this kind of thing to search for where your story actually starts.
In sum, to truly judge how well an author executes a “pithy wit or wisdom” opening (something employed more often in literary works than in genre fiction), we’d have to look at what comes next. We’d have to see how it frames whatever scene or narrative follows. But again, if your goal is to stand out in the slush pile, then avoid opening with writing that a slush reader might consider skim-or-skip material.
And as a fun counterpoint to this series (and because we do have a sense of humor), why not check out Max Winters (Exes) 10 Writing Rules You Can (And Should) Break.
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Brett Jordan
By Danielle Burby
In this column, we discuss everything authors should know when it comes to landing an agent and navigating the complexities of the publishing industry. You know how to query and what to ask when an agent offers you representation, but here’s a slightly more sensitive topic: commissions.
Agenting is a sales job, which means your agent doesn’t get paid for their work on your book until you get paid. An agent takes on a project and invests their time, energy, and resources with the hope that the project will sell to a publisher. If the project doesn’t sell, the agent doesn’t doesn’t get paid. (If an agent ever asks you to pay a fee for their services, walk away. They are not a real agent.) The industry standard commission rate is 15% for domestic sales (with slightly different rates for various ancillary rights). Once a book has sold and the contract is fully executed, the publisher schedules an EFT or writes a check to the agency, and the agency retains 15% and sends the author a check for the remaining 85%. It may never occur to an author to wonder what happens to the 15% commission they just paid.
There’s no true industry standard in the arrangement between agents and agencies surrounding that 15% commission. Every agency has a slightly different way of approaching this matter, but a general rule of thumb is that the agent gets some of the money and the agency gets some of the money. Essentially, you are paying the agent directly for his or her work and you are also paying the agency to continue growing, investing in support staff, and providing you with the proper services.
Different ways of paying agents:
Ultimately, it is an agent’s right to keep his or her financial agreement with an employer private, and I wouldn’t recommend asking about it on The Call or in conversation. That said, arming yourself with an awareness that these different arrangements are out there is important for you as an author. And, knowing them, you may be able to read between the lines to figure out how it works for your agent.
This is important because, the truth is, how your agent is paid does impact you. If your agent isn’t receiving appropriate commission percentages, he or she may change agencies. If an agency isn’t investing their own percentage in support staff and company growth (and therefore more services for you), it is something to be aware of because, chances are, your agent is doing extra work. In the first several years of agenting, the money comes in slowly, unpredictably, and often in small sums. If an agent is just starting out and is being paid commission only, it can be very difficult for that agent to pay the rent and bills. Publishing is a very tough business with a high burnout rate. The way agencies pay their agents absolutely contributes to an agent’s ability to stick it out.
Every agent has to build from somewhere, but some agencies offer their employees more support in that arena than others. While your agent has no control over this and shouldn’t be penalized for, say, not being in a position to work full time, it is something you want to think about. Consider it in the same way you’d weigh whether you want an editorial agent, a boutique agency, or an agent with a large vs. small client list. As always, the more you know about the way publishing works, the better!
By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…
#8) Your novel opens with bodily functions or the weather.
On average, we receive about 100 queries a day. I popped into our inbox right before writing this article, and sure enough, out of the last 100 submissions or so, about a dozen sample pages opened with either bodily functions or weather.
Before we take a closer look, here’s a quick reminder: This article series is not intended to be a list of openings to never, ever, ever, ever write. Any type of opening can be well executed. We just want to highlight that there are several types of openings that aspiring writers tend to unknowingly overuse, and because we see these openings over and over again, even the well-written ones feel stale. If you want to stand out and be fresh and unique, then this article series is for you! We want to help you steer clear of stale openings…and bodily functions and observations of the weather both fit that bill.
Bodily functions frequently spotted in openings include:
So what is the issue here? Besides the fact that bodily functions are often TM(G)I—Too Much Gross Information—and, therefore, a reading turn-off, they often signal that the writer is working too hard to be edgy or to convey an immediate conflict, yet the conflict is without context because the story hasn’t been set up yet. On one end of the spectrum is stuff I’d rather not know upon first meeting your character; on the other end of the spectrum, bodily functions without context generally don’t invoke emotion in the reader.
It bears mentioning that genre matters. If you write mysteries or thrillers, then your readers expect a dead body or two—usually killed in new, interesting, sick, twisted ways. So sick and twisted that someone in your book might vomit. Give your readers what they want! But think about whether your detective hero really needs to wake up and release a glittering, golden arc of pee into the toilet, blow his nose, and fart before he gets dressed and heads off to the crime scene.
As for starting with the weather, well, it’s certainly been done by many an esteemed author since the dawn of literature. No argument there. And yet therein lies the reason many aspiring writers continue to churn out weather openings. Certainly you can think of a more dynamic way to start a story! Start in scene, with a character doing something in a tense situation, and then layer in details about rain, sun, or approaching storms. As creative beings and literally the gods/goddesses of your own writing universes, we’re confident there are better openings within you.
Creative Commons Photo Credit: mslavick
In the last two weeks, we at NLA have offered representation to seven authors, most of whom received multiple offers. All agents are aggressively seeking new talent right now! It’s awesome to talk to savvy authors who have a list of good questions prepared for their initial conversations with prospective agents, questions like:
• What is your communication style?
• How would you describe your dream client?
• What is your editorial vision for my work?
• What would your submission strategy for this work be if you took it on?
• What happens if my project doesn’t sell?
• Are you open to me writing in different genres?
• Can I chat with a current client?
All these are questions you should ask; you definitely want your agent to be a good personality match and share your vision for your career. But you also want that agent to be your best advocate and protect your business interests in the publishing industry. With that in mind, here are five key questions authors should also be asking, but in general I never hear:
1) What is the average duration of a contract negotiation at your agency? At NLA, average time is three or four months, as we’ll stand firm on key clauses until a compromise is reached. We don’t rush it. If a publishing house has recently revamped its boilerplate contract, then that timeframe can more than double, as we’ll have to negotiate the boilerplate contract first, and then negotiate your specific deal.
2) Will I be involved in seeing the original offer and then the final offer from the Publisher? NLA always shares with our clients the details of the first offer and what we negotiated to create the final offer. Clients are always invited to participate in the process and weigh in.
3) Will I have a chance to review the original contract from the publisher as well as all the requested changes documentation, and then the master redline of the final contract I’ll be signing? Can you walk me through any contract clause that I might not understand? At NLA, we share all this documentation, whether clients want to read it or not, so that clients are 100% confident that their deal and contract have been fully negotiated. And I’ve spent many an hour on the phone or Skype, combing through contract particulars with clients to make sure they’re completely comfortable with what they’re signing. Most agencies simply forward on the final contract for signatures, and that’s it.
4) Do you regularly audit royalty statements? How much money has the agency recovered by doing so? At NLA, we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for our authors because we regularly catch errors when auditing their royalty statements. And we catch errors in almost every accounting period—that’s how frequently it happens.
5) How many non-agent support staff are at your agency? This is important, as it’s very hard for an agent to do all of the above, and do it well, without significant assistance from non-agent support staff. At NLA, we have three agents and a team of six in-house non-agent support staff to protect our clients. Most agencies have a lot of agents and very little, if any, support staff. The agents are expected to be independent silos and handle all of the above plus all agenting duties. It’s not possible to juggle all that without letting stuff fall through the cracks.
Bonus question to ask if you are feeling bold: What percentage of your clients make their living solely from writing? If you ask me this question, I can truthfully say that 95% of my clients earn their living as authors—meaning they earn enough money to support themselves without a secondary job or support from a partner.
Back in the crazy days of the late 2000s, there was a popular agent, active on social media, who landed a lot of clients, posted some sexy six-figure deals, and then disappeared. I ended up taking on a former client of this now defunct agent/agency and realized, to my horror, that the author had been signing boilerplate contracts with no negotiated changes. The agent hadn’t negotiated a thing! The author was new to the business and had no way of knowing the agent wasn’t doing the job. Even though that agent looked hot from the outside, s/he had actually done very little to protect the client’s interests.
You can make sure that doesn’t happen to you. This is your career. Ask the above 5 Qs. After all, these aren’t the sexy tasks, but they do affect an author’s bottom line. Don’t feel uncomfortable or worry that you might insult the agent. If an agent becomes defensive when asked legitimate questions, then chances are that agent isn’t right for you.
Stay smart, savvy, and shrewd. Check out my “What Makes a Good Agent” article series on Pub Rants. You are your own best advocate.
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Chris Potter
You’ve done your research and know the basics of writing an excellent query letter, but what comes next? What happens when that query letter works and an agent requests your novel? At the end of the day, it all comes down to your manuscript. Are you and your manuscript ready for an agent? How do you know? The short answer: Ask yourself whether you’re treating this like a marathon or a sprint.
Once you’ve typed “The End,” you may be tempted to immediately go out and query every agent you can find, but keep in mind that, while it is a major accomplishment to finish writing a novel, even the most practiced authors need to take time to revise. The first draft is where the ideas form on the page, but it is only in subsequent revisions and rewrites that the actual story begins to emerge. Writing, like any other art, is a craft that takes skill and dedication. Keep in mind that you don’t have a deadline. There is all the time in the world for you to work and rework your novel until you have gotten it into the best shape you possibly can.
As you revise, remember that this is your world and you have full control over it. What a liberating superpower! Nothing in your novel is fixed in stone. This means you can have fun and play with everything from characterization to the rules of the world to the stakes and goals that drive the plot.
Some tips for revising:
Whichever revision style you choose (and you can choose more than one!), your goal should be to make your book better, stronger, more powerful.
My biggest piece of advice to new authors is this:
Too often we get requests from agent-seeking writers asking for a chance to resubmit a now-revised manuscript. Occasionally we may say yes, but more often we have to say no because of time constraints. You might only have one shot at an agent read. Spend it wisely. Remember that each and every draft will make you better at what you do. Keep creating and writing and challenging yourself. Keep running this marathon.
By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…
#7) Your novel opens with pages of backstory or exposition instead of a scene created to kick off your novel.
In the thousands and thousands of opening pages we’ve read over the years, we’ve discovered three problematic openers that fit this bill:
This type of opening becomes a problem when authors feel the need to fully explain their world before officially beginning the story—they’re afraid that readers will be lost without all the background information. A good intention, but a master writer knows how to layer in her world building and backstory at the same time she is introducing her characters, setting, and whatever situational conflict will launch the story’s momentum.
When I come across a submission like this, I’ll skip ahead to see where—or if—the story actually begins; however, I’m already on notice. This type of false start makes it that much harder for the writer to win me back. You don’t want an agent looking for a reason to say no.
Angie here! Let’s look at some examples.
Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations. Marge surveyed their work and gave a satisfied nod. They’d made great progress today.
Marge and her team had flown to Egypt six weeks prior. The university had finally managed to secure the funding for this dig, despite the dean’s oft-repeated assurances that the archeology department would never approve the sum Marge had requested. But over the summer, some anonymous donor had stepped forward and written a big, fat check. Marge couldn’t guess who the donor was, but she was too excited to care. She started calling her team and making travel arrangements…
This type of opening is often crafted by writers who’ve learned that it’s a best practice to start in scene. So they do. But the siren song of expository backstory is still too alluring, and they can’t resist. To see if you’ve fallen prey, check for past-perfect verbs in your opening scene (had managed, had requested, had stepped forward). If you see some, then—RED ALERT!—you’ve probably slipped into backstory.
Let’s look at another example:
Marge had learned two things during her seventeen years as a university professor. The first was never to take no for an answer, especially when it came from the dean during a conversation about funding. The second was never to question the motives of an anonymous donor who wanted to send you and your whole team to Egypt for three months on an exclusive dig. She was right about the first, but wrong about the second. She was about to find out just how wrong.
Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations…you know the rest.
This type of opening is often crafted by writers who want to provide an immediate insight into character before showing us that character in setting, motion, or conflict. Also note the prophetic “she was about to find out just how wrong.” As far as hooks go, this kind always feels a little too on-the-nose, like the writer is saying, Hey, isn’t that portentous and enticing? Most times, authors need to work a little harder than that to plant the hook that will keep readers genuinely intrigued.
To avoid this type of opening, recognize the difference between scene and exposition/backstory. Practice writing solely in scene. Only then, go back and layer in your exposition/backstory with subtle strokes that are relevant to the current scene.
Kristin here: Of course, like all the examples we’ve given in this article series, any opening can work in the hands of a master writer. My client Sherry Thomas is renowned for her ability to pull this off. Read the opening of her debut novel Private Arrangements to see how she breaks this rule but still manages to get away with it. Her masterful writing sweeps the reader away!
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Angie Harms
The short answer is nothing. There actually isn’t much you can do.
Rarely discussed in publishing is the fact that certain countries don’t recognize or honor copyright law. Persian countries (including Iran and Iraq) are an excellent example of territories that don’t. Persian publishers will often translate popular novels and publish them in their countries without a license, and the author does not receive a dime as an advance or royalties.
Kind of shocking, isn’t it?
This situation has happened a number of times for my authors. We usually find out about unlicensed editions when an author receives fan mail or a lovely note from the translator. Even though the Persian publishers don’t feel much obligation to the author, we have found over the years that the translators actually do. And often they will reach out to the author and ask permission to do the translation—even though they know (and are quite apologetic) that the publisher has no plans to compensate the author in any way.
I have a special place in my heart for these morally centered translators.
So what can an author do when it becomes apparent that his or her books are being translated and published in countries that don’t honor copyright protection?
My answer is this. The author should offer to write a special foreword for the edition in exchange for a nominal fee. It’s my attempt to get the author at least some compensation. Yet so far no Iranian publisher has taken me up on this offer.
But I’m hopeful. Someday…
Photo Credit: Peta de Aztlan
Note from Kristin: Jamie is one of NLA’s first reader on queries. He reads hundreds a week so this was worth sharing.
By Jamie Persichetti
As a gay man, it’s always weird to read in query letter book pitches that a story “features LGBTQ+ characters” or “has diversity” like they are bonus content on the special edition BluRay, specs on a laptop with extra RAM, or items to check off a culturally aware grocery list.
I mean, cool! Keep the queer coming. Books need them. But you sound a bit… odd… if you phrase it like they are features. Just say someone is trans, or that he has a boyfriend. Or (and I know this is a hard one) don’t mention it at all if it’s not actually important to the core of the book.
I get it. Don’t write diverse characters and you’re a bad person. Write diverse characters and you do it wrong. It’s a double standard that is suffocating publishing right now. This is just how I felt in the moment.
By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…
#6) Your novel opens with prose problems, such as flowery or overly descriptive verbiage.
This morning, while sipping my steaming hot and deliciously aromatic Mountain chai with creamy half and half and gazing out my window at the cerulean sky, I pondered on the inevitable curiosity borne of dissecting why working authors succumb to the passion of crafting overwrought prose.
Did you have trouble reading the above sentence? Did you read it twice to figure out what I was talking about? Did you wonder why I didn’t just say, “This morning, I thought about why writers use overly descriptive language”?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then you know exactly why overwrought prose makes our list of openings to avoid.
So often we come across submissions in which writers are trying to play with language, but they’re often playing with it at the wrong time. If you just need to convey that a character smiled, then “He smiled” is far preferable to “His lips quirked up at the corners, his sudden smile lighting up his face in such a way that I knew he was happy” is overdone. But newer writers, still mastering craft, often make the mistake of using fancy words and “phrasey” sentence structure all throughout their work…and this slows a story down rather than moving it along.
The point is the smile, not how the character did it.
Expansion and Contraction
One thing to keep in mind as you revise your own writing is the concept of expansion and contraction. Bestselling writers know when to expand their prose and when to contract it. They expand when they want to slow readers down to ensure they take notice of something important to the development of character or plot. They contract when they need to keep things snappy and simple to keep readers interested as the story moves over points of low conflict or tension, or transitions from one turning point to the next.
Newer writers, on the other hand, tend to expand a little too much—a big reason such writers wrestle with high word counts. Learn (a) that contraction is a tool in your toolbox and (b) when you need to use it, and you’ll be well on your way!
So is there a time or a place for more elevated prose? Absolutely. But save it for scenes in which you need a certain type of prose to set a certain type of tone. Save it for a moment of gravity, to let the words shine.
Photo Credit: Thor