Pub Rants

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

Category: writing

12 Trends in the Query Inbox

In July, I attended the Colorado Writing Workshop. I knew I would be asked about what’s hot or trending. So Angie, Maria, and I put our heads together to create a handy list of what we’re seeing in the query inbox. Let me preface this though:

Writers, don’t read too much into this list.

If your current WIP fits into one of these trends, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost. It just means that you are not alone in playing with these concepts/tropes. It also means that it’s harder to stand out in the query slush pile. That’s just a fact. So you have to work at really spotlighting what makes your novel with these elements special and unique so as to entice the query reader to find out more. Why is this one worth reading over the ten other queries that might have come in the same day with a similar premise?

A tough question, I know! But one worth answering in your query, even if none of the below describes your WIP.

1. The main character is dead or can see dead people. We’re seeing this concept in submissions for both the adult and young adult markets.

2. The main character is trapped in a book, game, or virtual reality. We’re seeing this a lot in adult SF submissions and also some in the YA world.

3. The main character is being sent to live with a relative (aunt, uncle, grandparent), whether for the summer or on a more permanent basis. Lots and lots in middle grade, but also appearing in YA submissions.

4. WWII…still getting tons of queries for WWII stories. Almost all the submissions we’re seeing in this space are for the adult market. For the record, I love stories set in this time period. After all, E.R. Ramzipoor’s THE VENTRILOQUISTS releases in August. Still, it has to be a standout story.

5. Lots of queries for stories set in ancient Rome, or in secondary worlds based on the aesthetic of ancient Rome. Interestingly, we are seeing in both YA and adult market submissions that fit this bill.

6. Lots of villains who are thinly veiled portrayals of our current president. Feels like in every submission we are receiving…but this is cropping up most often in dystopian submissions.

7. Lots of queries featuring pirates. Aye, Mateys! Whether the pirates are fun and whimsical, serious and historical, or speculative (like air-ship pirates or space pirates), we’re seeing pirates galore in middle grade, YA, and adult fantasy.

8. Retellings seem to be slowing down compared to, say, a year ago. But we still see them on a regular basis. Fairy tales, folk tales, classic literature retellings—across all genres for adult and children’s.

9. Teens recruited, conscripted, or otherwise forced to train as assassins, soldiers, spies, etc. I think you guess for which market this is!

10. Teens who must compete in trials or games to save themselves or a loved one, to determine their place in society, or as a means of matchmaking. No extra comment needed here!

11. Main characters who are bullied or abused, or who are survivors of bullying or abuse, and there isn’t another story line to create depth/complexity or to truly drive the plot of the novel. We see most bullying in middle grade, though it shows up in YA submissions as well, while survivor narratives abound in women’s fiction.

12. Post-apocalyptic stories, many of which take place in the aftermath of a plague or virus, or some climate-related catastrophe. Seeing this in the adult and children’s market still.

Happy writing! If you are early into a WIP based on a trending concept, spend some time thinking about whether it’s worth continuing or whether you should tackle a different, more brilliant idea you’ve played with. You might decide it’s better to get cracking on that one instead.

Creative Commons Credit: Andy Wright


Why I’m So Picky About Fantasy

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


The Most Common Pitfalls in Middle Grade Manuscripts

 

Middle grade is a very robust area of the market and an exciting place to be as an author. Middle grade readers (usually ages 8 to 12) are enthusiastic and passionate about books and the writers they love. On the older end of the spectrum, they are on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood, and yet they still have one foot in childhood with a thirst for imagination and adventure. It is a stage in life that lends itself to a wide range of stories and and life experiences and, therefore, it is a very rich and exciting space to write in. There is a lot of room for experimentation and risk-taking in terms of plot and genre. That said, it is also a tricky category to get right.

I read a lot of queries for middle grade: it is a category I truly love and am actively looking to represent. Because of that, I’m going to share the most common pitfalls I see in the middle grade manuscripts I consider, along with some tips for sidestepping those issues in your own writing.

1. Sounding like an adult pretending to be a child instead of using an authentic middle grade voice. This is, by far, the primary issue I see in the middle grade manuscripts in my inbox. It is so important for you to see through the eyes of a middle schooler while you write rather than the eyes of an adult. An authentic voice is vital in middle grade novels and, hard though it may be, you can’t let your grownup perspective seep in. It is immediately apparent when an author isn’t quite attuned to the age group they are writing for. Most often when this happens, authors waver in and out of the character, sounding very young and overly precocious in turns, leading to an uneven tone. Here are some ways to address this problem:

  • Read recent published middle grade in your genre (contemporary, fantasy, humor, historical, etc). By reading similar novels that have successfully found their footing in the market, you can analyze how the authors of those books utilize language and how they portray the age group.
  • Know your audience. The best way to sound like a middle schooler is to spend time with the age group. Listen to the way they talk and the things they talk about. What do they care about? What books are they loving? What is the latest trend? What are they struggling with?
  • Channel the feelings you felt in middle school. The truest thing you can do as an author is capture feelings on the page. The life of a middle schooler in 2018 is very different than the life of a middle schooler was in your childhood, but the feelings are universal. Tap into those feelings as you write and it will lead to a story that is true.

2. Focusing on a moral message. Middle grade readers want to read a story that captures them and brings them on a journey. They don’t want to be preached at. Sure, your characters will learn something along the way, but if you approach your story with an agenda, a middle grade reader will immediately sniff that out and run the other way. Instead:

  • Focus on plot and character development. Make sure that the main character has problems, both external and internal, to overcome throughout the story. If there’s a theme you’d like to explore, don’t think of it from the perspective of teaching your readers a lesson, think of it as discovering a truth that allows your character to grow.
  • Show don’t tell. If you want your readers to walk away with a new understanding of the topic you’re writing about, let them discover it between the lines instead of hitting it home with moments of adult characters lecturing or having your protagonist pause in the story to reflect on a Big Moral Point.

3. Condescending to the reader. Trust that your readers are intelligent and have their own lives, complete with their own obstacles, conflicts, and emotions. Your readers live in the real world and are capable of being challenged and trusted with nuance. (Although sometimes a good fart joke is also called for.)

  • Don’t shy away from challenging topics.
  • Don’t hesitate to use the occasional sophisticated word.
  • Make sure your plot is just as developed and layered as it would be if you were writing for adults. Kids can identify plot holes and inconsistencies just as easily as adults can!

4. Writing from the author’s childhood rather than a contemporary setting. Too often, I see queries that make it clear the author has gone back to their own childhood to tell a story rather than contemporized an emotional truth from their childhood for a modern reader. Kids are looking for stories that resonate with them today–not stories that take them back to their parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods. If you are writing realistic middle grade, put it in a contemporary setting, unless there is a very compelling reason to set the story in a different time.

5. Adults? Keep Out! Make sure your adult characters don’t take over the story. It is completely normal for there to be grownups in a middle grade novel, but those characters should be side characters, not central characters. If you find your adults imparting important life lessons or making choices that help resolve the plot, or if you find that your young characters spend a lot of time observing and thinking about what the adults are doing in the story, then take a step back and look at your arc again. It is vital in middle grade that the protagonist is the character with the central conflict and that your protagonist is also the one to resolve that conflict. If you find your adults taking over, gently put them back in their place on the sidelines. Middle grade is a preteen’s world. No grownups allowed.

Creative Commons Picture Credit: State Library of Ohio


Pivot Like A Pro

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged by writers everywhere: every success in publishing is built on stacks of rejection letters. Authors by Agents. Authors by Editors. Agents by Editors. Part of that success is about being agile and knowing when to pivot, whether away from a project on submission or away from a long-running series. Think about pivoting if:

You’re not getting traction.You’ve been pitching your manuscript and not getting any requests, or the rejections just keep coming.

How to pivot:

  • Pitch. Think about your pitch first. Is there something about the story that you’re not playing up? Is there a better way to be positioning your work? Agents do this all the time. If a project doesn’t seem to be connecting, one of the first things we consider is how we’re positioning it. Switching up the pitch (playing up a relationship of note or an underlying mystery, for example) forces the reader to look for different elements in a story and opens up new avenues of connection.
  • Manuscript. Are you getting consistent feedback that something isn’t working or that something isn’t coming across? This might be a tough one to unearth in the world of form rejection letters, but if you’re concerned that something isn’t connecting, make sure to get to the bottom of it. If you’re receiving standard form rejections, seek out other sources: editors at conferences, contests, or a new writing group can help.

You can’t see the forest for the trees. This is the story you very desperately want to write, but you’ve been reworking it for so long you’re not sure if you have critical distance to see if it’s working any longer. How to pivot:

  • Clean slate. Sometimes the best inspiration comes when we put aside the unfixable and start from scratch. Most published authors got their agent with their third or fourth completed manuscript. Some of today’s bestsellers were the projects authors were working on while their agents were out on submission with something else. Try writing something completely different. It’s hard, especially when the idea in front of you has been with you for so long, but it’s worth it. You’re not letting the first one go, just giving it room to breathe.

Readership is dwindling. Series with recurring protagonists sound like bestseller gold, and they can be, but there is such a thing as jumping the shark in books. Typically, readership declines book to book in long-running series, and at some point it might be necessary to call it quits with a protagonist you’ve been writing into many books, but there are ways to keep your engaged audience coming back.

How to pivot:

  • Keep it fresh. Just because you’re working with the same protagonist doesn’t mean you have to keep writing the same book. Consider switching up POV or narrative voice or locale for the next installment.

The market shifts. You’ve been writing (fill in the blank: dystopian, cozy mystery, spy thriller, etc.), and suddenly they tell you there’s no market for it. How to pivot:

  • Rebrand. Market shifts happens all the time. A life-long career as an author is just that, life-long, so consider a lateral move to a different genre.

Creative Commons photo Credit: Ron Mader


The Power of Persistence

We are in the season of hot chocolate, sweaters, and storytelling late into the night. Because of that, and because this is the last NLA newsletter of 2017, I wanted to share a story of authorly hard work, hope, and, ultimately, perseverance with you. If you have gotten nothing but rejections for your query, or you haven’t landed that agent, or your full manuscript has gotten nothing but passes, DON’T GIVE UP!

I met Jillian Boehme when I landed my first agency job in 2013. I was an assistant and she was my boss’s client. At that time, she had already spent eight years working toward a book contract. She’d written several manuscripts before landing an agent and been on submission to editors at every reputable publishing house with three additional manuscripts that had gotten nothing but passes. In 2007, she had also started a popular (and, at the time, anonymous) writing advice blog called Miss Snark’s First Victim, which boasted many success stories by connecting numerous authors with agents who went on to sell their books. And yet, despite her hard work, despite her industry connections, despite continuing to write and building her platform, despite having an agent, despite her persistence, she could not seem to sell a novel.

The thing about Jill is that she has an unrelenting work ethic mixed with a deep core need to create art. Every time she was knocked down (and it happened many more times than either of us wanted), she shook it off and approached her writing with a renewed sense of determination. When she submitted her fourth novel, a YA sci-fi, my boss and I gave her a massive revision that, among other things, included eliminating a love triangle by changing the gender of a character, throwing away an entire central plot line, and replacing it with an entirely new one. She got the edit letter, took a breath, and pulled it off beautifully, improving the manuscript by miles in the process. Sadly, that book didn’t sell either, but it did do something important. It pushed her to be a better writer.

By the time Jillian wrote her fifth book for submission to publishers, she had switched to YA fantasy, which my boss at the time didn’t represent, but happens to be one of my favorite genres. I was building my own client list and she and I had been working together for almost three years. We had developed a relationship built on trust, jokes, a love of chocolate, and mutual admiration. Neither of us knew for sure whether she’d ever land a book deal, but I had never seen any author work harder, bounce back from rejection more completely, or improve so drastically in skill and technique with each project. She approached her career with a dogged determination and kept trying even when she had every reason to give up. I loved her fifth book; it was the strongest thing she’d ever written. My boss stepped aside, we formalized our agent/author relationship, edited together, pushed it to be even better, and enthusiastically submitted to editors. We got so close. Every rejection was a heartbreaker, glowing and filled with praise. It still didn’t sell.

Now, twelve years in to Jillian’s journey to publication, five years in to my own relationship with her, and six publisher-submitted manuscripts later, all that hope and hard work has finally paid off. In November, we announced a deal with one of NYC’s major publishers. Jillian’s debut YA fantasy, Gathering Storm, sold to the brilliant and insightful Elayne Becker at Tor Teen in a two-book deal and will be published in Summer 2019. It is already generating film interest.

It is my personal philosophy as an agent that I need to be my clients’ biggest fan and cheerleader. We are a team. There were times when Jillian felt discouraged and couldn’t find hope; in those moments, I told her I’d take care of hoping for the both of us. I have read each of her books upwards of five times and we’ve had endless (and wonderful) editorial and strategic conversations. The agent/author relationship is a special one of shared enthusiasm and dedication to art and business. Through each rejection, we looked to the future and strategized about the next step. This was a very meaningful win. When the offer from Elayne came in, Jillian and I both cried a lot of happy tears.

Whether you are querying agents, waiting for that first book deal, or already published and working to climb higher, you can look to Jillian and her journey for inspiration. Remember that rejections are a badge of honor. It means you are in the game; people in the industry are reading your work. No matter how many no’s you get, all you need is one yes. And, most importantly, there is no such thing as overnight success. To move forward in this business (or in any business), you must constantly learn, grow, and improve. Work hard and don’t ever give up. You are reading this because you are a writer; keep writing and keep getting better. The rest will follow.


Writers! 5 Survival Tips For The Holidays

The natural delays during the submission process are agony enough for authors, and the whole waiting game gets even worse as we move into the winter holiday season.

But there are some things you can do to help yourself feel like progress is being made, no matter what stage your writing project might be in!


Writers, if your project is currently on query submission, here are 5 tips to help you make it through:


* Thinking about pressing send on that spankin’ new query letter and opening pages email you’ve ben working on? Consider waiting until January 2. Agents are trying to clear the decks. You have better odds if agents aren’t in a hurry.

* Have a query currently out to agents? The odds are probably 90%+ that you will hear a response before the end of the year. Be zen about whatever that response might be. There are new agents to query and new projects awaiting your creative muse.

* Write up a query letter for a novel you haven’t even started yet. Just for fun. Sometimes that very process can help you crystallize your hook or story concept.

* If you just finished NaNoWriMo in November, give yourself permission to take a break from this whole publishing treadmill.

* Eggnog Chai. Just trust me on this one. Probably won’t help your writing, but it will improve your holiday outlook in general.


Writers, if your Agent currently has your project on submission, here are a couple of tips to help you cope:


* You might hear something before December 15, as editors are trying to clear their desks for the new year. But if you don’t, quit checking email. You can do it. Shut that laptop down. Enjoy family instead.

* Make time to write something wholly new, and maybe just for fun, over the holidays. Believe me, you are going to get knocked off your writing schedule. And that’s okay. Just book an appointment in your calendar for writing time. Let it be just as important as everything else you might have scheduled.

* Find a new place to write. Coffee shops and bookstores might be extra crowded and noisy during the holidays. Try a local library instead.

* Set one writing goal, hit it, and then reward yourself with something you’ve been wanting all year.

* Do one thing that makes you feel like a writer. Maybe it’s registering for that class or writing conference you’ve had your eye on. Why not try setting up a happy hour with other authors in your neighborhood or city?

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Alex Janu


What Is a High Concept, and Do You Need One? by Danielle Burby

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


Fantasy Openings To Avoid or To Very Carefully Consider

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


Is Your Manuscript Ready? By Danielle Burby

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:

  • Print out your draft and make notes in the margins to highlight moments that can be improved.
  • Map out the plot, point by point. Poke as many holes in the logic as possible. Re-map and revise.
  • Read the entire novel from start to finish several times, with a different focus each time—plot, character, language, copy editing.
  • Read out loud and listen to your words. Hearing can illuminate writer tics in need of eliminating or monotonous sentence structure. Revise with that in mind.
  • Share it with trusted readers who will push you even farther. If someone has a crazy suggestion, give it a shot! If it doesn’t work, at least you’ve tried it. Revise again. Repeat.

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:

  • Set the bar high and take the time needed to get to a masterful final draft.

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.


Can White Authors Write Characters of Color?

This question is sparking conversation in the adult-fiction world, but it seems to be front and center in the children’s realm. Attend any SCBWI regional or national meeting and this topic is sure to come up: Can a white author write a character of color?

The answer is yes. We live in a diverse world. In fact, in most contemporary settings, an all-white cast of characters would be odd, as it hardly reflects reality. So yes, a white author can write diverse cast.

However….

Before I discuss this further, I want to acknowledge two awesome movements that all writers need to be aware of:

  1. #ownvoices on Twitter
  2. WeNeedDiversebooks.org and #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter

Writers, if you haven’t spent any time listening in or participating in these Twitter conversations, I strongly recommend that you do. Even if you’re an experienced writer. Treat it like any other research you do to create and fully realized characters.

So let’s tackle my “however.” This endeavor is not to be taken lightly. Make your characters realistic and grounded, and avoid falling back on stereotypes. Instead of merely describing your characters’ skin color, build a realistic and complex backstory for each character: What past experiences related to their heritage have shaped their identities and worldviews, and how will those things affect the ways in which they think, behave, and interact with others during the course of your story? Research extensively. Engage sensitivity readers of the same background(s) as your character(s). Expect and listen to criticism.

And read, read, read. Here are a few articles to get you started. I’m no expert, and I’m still learning along with everyone else. But the authors on my client list are from a variety of backgrounds, and we all support diversity in literature.

Know that some readers, respectfully, will not read your book if you are a white author writing a novel which features a character of color. And you need to be 100% okay with that. It is a reader’s prerogative.

Finally, begin to engage in similar conversations related to writing characters of different genders (it ain’t just male and female, folks!), sexualities, and physical abilities. The depth and range of characters that you create for your novels is limited only by your willingness to step out of yourself and into the lives of those who are not like you!

Photo Credit: Sean McMenemy


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