A Message from Kristin Nelson
9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 3
By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp
For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.
For the Part 2 of this article series, click here.
Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers who want to work on craft. During our workshop, we identified several story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers who are looking for representation. Thus, this series of articles was born! Here we bring you the third installment.
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…
#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”
A common opening-page snafu we often see is when writers spend too much time setting up what is “normal” for the character before leaping into what will make this story/character extraordinary.
We see a lot of opening pages that show a character performing mindless tasks, such as cleaning the house, grooming (getting out of the shower, combing hair, brushing teeth), taking a child to school, collecting the mail, making breakfast, or having conversations that revolve around the mundane. And don’t forget our all-time favorite: a character waking up. (See “The Perils of Waking Characters” Part 1 and Part 2 on my blog for more about why this opening spells trouble.)
Illustrating the normal is not dynamic. In the normal, very little can be revealed about the character or setting. Because of this, we’re also on alert for openings like these:
“Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning].”
“If I’d only known then what I know now…[followed by pages of detail about then].”
These types of openings hint at an inciting incident. But what the writer is really doing here is postponing the story conflict. They’re asking the reader to bear with them through a few opening pages of mundane tasks and details by making a vague promise that there’s good stuff coming later. In most cases, that simply doesn’t work.
The Importance of Voice
Accomplished writers use literary voice to transcend what might be considered mundane. A terrific example is the opening scene of Gail Carriger’s Soulless:
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 had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.
This scene actually does open with a light touch of the mundane, but Carriger’s unique voice draws the reader in. Most importantly, the scene doesn’t stay in the mundane for very long—only two sentences, and then in the third, an unexpected vampire appears. The surprise is not the vampire. He’s actually expected in this world. It’s his attack that knocks Alexia off balance. Every vampire knows Alexia is soulless and therefore renders the supernatural powerless once touched. This persistent vampire doesn’t seem to know this nor does he seem to learn quickly when his power disappears. This is what then grabs the reader and won’t let go. Carriger takes the mundane and uses voice, wit, and a twist to engage the reader…all in the first three pages of the novel.
The Hero’s Journey and the Ordinary World
Angie here. Many writers’ first contact with story structure is the Hero’s Journey. It gets pounded into us at writing conferences and story workshops, and through books on how to plot a novel.
According to the Hero’s Journey (useful to screenwriters, constraining to novelists), we must devote our first few pages to the “ordinary world.” This is supposed to paint a picture of what the hero’s life is like before the Big Boom of the story’s inciting incident. Without the hero’s ordinary world, how will the reader recognize that change has occurred once they reach the end of the novel?
What this widespread education in the Hero’s Journey has done is fill slush piles everywhere with sample pages full of ordinary worlds. Yet what are agents looking for? Extraordinary. Your best bet for standing out in the slush pile is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible.
Bonus Tip: The Chapter Two Switcheroo
James Scott Bell, the author of some of Angie’s favorite books on writing and revision, suggests that once you finish an entire draft of your novel, go back and swap your first two chapters. So many aspiring writers frontload their first chapters with backstory, exposition, and narrative, saving the action and conflict for chapter two. Sometimes, switching those first two chapters is all you need to do to fix a boring opening. Plant the hook first. Then see how much of the other stuff you really need in order to tell your protagonist’s tale in the most compelling—and extraordinary!—way possible.
Pub Rants University
Opening Pages That Lead To Yes!
A Three-Session Workshop with Angie Hodapp
Thursday, August 04
at 6:00 - 8:00 PM MT
This Webinar intensive is brought to you by NLA Digital.
Sessions: 3 consecutive Thursdays (August 4, August, 11, and August 18, 2016)
Duration of each session: 2 hours
Total contact time: 6 hours plus homework
Requirement: Attendees must use a phone for audio to call in and actively participate.
Class Limit: 12
- This Webinar is a workshop and does not constitute a submission to NLA.
- Only fiction submissions are eligible for this Webinar. No memoirs or non-fiction works, please.
- Register early, as all attendees will have an assignment to do in preparation for the first session. Registered attendees will receive the assignment no later than Friday, July 8, 2016. Those who register after that date will receive the assignment as soon as they register. Registration will close (and a waitlist will open) as soon as all 12 spots are filled.
If your query letter or in-person pitch got you a request for sample pages, but your sample pages didn’t get you a request for a full manuscript, what went wrong? In this hands-on workshop led by Angie Hodapp, you’ll explore what agents are looking for in opening pages and learn ways to craft evocative beginnings that get your full manuscript read.
Each attendee must submit the first five pages of his or her novel and will be expected to actively workshop other attendees’ opening pages within the provided workshopping guidelines. We’ll discuss our works-in-progress and help each other brainstorm various possible entry points in relation to each work’s overall story structure. During the last session, Agent Kristin will join us to do a live, blind read on several revised opening pages. Join us and learn how to turn those sample requests into requests for full manuscripts!
What You’ll Learn:
- The importance of establishing character, setting, and voice on page one.
- How the opening image or scene should relate to a story’s overall structure.
- How to introduce story questions that entice rather than confuse the reader.
- How to avoid cliched openings.
- What starting in medias res really means—and, more importantly, what it doesn’t.
- Angie will be on video as well as audio.
- Attendees are welcome to ask questions throughout the Webinar.
- Attendees will have access to the video recording of the Webinar for six months.
Angie Hodapp holds a BA in English education and an MA in English and communication development. A graduate of the Denver Publishing Institute, she has worked in professional writing and editing for sixteen years, the last five of which have been spent as the Contracts and Royalties Manager at Nelson Literary Agency. She teaches workshops at various writing conferences and loves working with writers who are looking to hone their craft and get their work ready for publication.
Think Like an Agent
When a Publishing Imprint Is Sold
Two weeks ago, news hit the wire that Llewellyn sold its young adult line, Flux, to Northstar and assigned all the assets of the imprint (i.e., the published titles) to this new publisher. (As a side note, this is exactly what the now defunct publisher Dorchester did in 2012 when they sold their assets to Amazon.)
This seems like an excellent reason to tackle a rarely discussed clause present in every contract, regardless of how big or small the publisher.
It’s aptly called the Assignment clause and will probably read something like this:
Publisher shall in all events have the right to authorize or license publication or use of any Work, or to assign this Agreement, in whole or in part, to any of its member or parent companies, to any subsidiary or affiliated company, or as part of a merger or in connection with the sale of all or substantially all of Publisher’s business or the business of one of its divisions.
Does an author have any say or recourse in this event?
Short answer: no.
This clause entitles the publisher to sell a division or assign the agreement to a third-party entity.
Long answer: perhaps.
When an assignment is happening, often a literary agent can negotiate with the new entity for better terms for the client (if there is leverage) or negotiate for a reversion (unlikely if the title is still selling well, but likely if sales are modest and the new party does not want the cost of maintaining the title).
Yet another great reason to have a literary agent…
Kristin's Book Club
Compared to To Kill A Mockingbird
Louise Erdrich won the National Book Award for her novel THE ROUND HOUSE, a coming-of-age novel told by an adult narrator from the perspective of his thirteen-year old self. It’s an excellent example of a young protagonist story that does not equal a young-adult novel.
Summary: Transporting readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, THE ROUND HOUSE is an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family.
Verdict: This is a story with vivid language and scenes that will stay with you long after you finished the last page and closed the cover. A novel where the unforgettable setting and characters of the Reservation provide a glimpse inside a world not often experienced by the reader. All against the backdrop of a horrific crime. Erdrich deliberately makes her storytelling about the journey, not the ending, as discerning readers will long have seen coming. In other words, it will really depend on the individual reader whether or not the book is emotionally satisfying.
Next up, Max Berry’s LEXICON.
Tech Tips Installment Three: Field Maneuvers
Lori Bennett heads up daily operations at Nelson Literary Agency’s digital wing, NLA Digital.
Welcome to installment three in our series discussing metadata tips. Today, we’ll focus on some specific important metadata fields, and how to better leverage them.
The Book Description Field
Best practice: Since it’s ubiquitous, many authors don’t tune their book descriptions. But for retail venues that do not allow you to enter separate author bio, series, or book-review fields, you can craft a book description that includes these elements. You may even consider using different book descriptions for different retail venues.
Bad practice: Retail venues used to allow you to embed references to other works and authors to boost your book’s visibility. That practice is now discouraged, or outright disallowed. Be bold, and stand on your own. Don’t rely on references to other authors and books to sell yours.
The Series Field
Series sell! Take the time to enter series information and to synchronize it across all retail platforms. That means making sure that the series name is spelled the same way for all books in the series, across all venues where you have launched your books.
If you encounter a venue where you do not have a unique series field entry, you can sneak that information easily into your book description.
The Search String/Keywords Field
If you have it available, you can use the search-string field to supplement a small number of BISAC-like codes. Some retailers may not even list the search codes you’d really like to use. So if your book has very specific elements you want to feature, putting them in your search-string field, along with your book description, is a great way to reinforce your book’s searchability.
Best practice: Take the time to rank your search terms in the order you want them to be evaluated. Many retail systems truncate the search field after a certain number of characters, and if you bury the lead, you’re not helping your book to be discovered.
Insider Tips from NLA
Query Tip: Beware the Elements of Fiction!
Contracts and Royalties Manager Angie Hodapp teaches writing-craft and query-letter workshops both online and through various writing organizations.
I would estimate that well over half the query letters we receive here at Nelson Literary Agency fall on the wordy side. It’s not necessarily that these queries are too long. It’s that on the sentence level they employ too many words to relay straightforward concepts.
Which makes me worry the manuscript will be wordy too. Yikes.
This month, I want to put you on the lookout for specific words and phrases that might be cluttering your query. To start, print out a copy of your query letter and highlight all instances of the following words:
character, main character, hero, protagonist, antagonist, villain, bad guy, narrator
, plot, narrative, set/setting/world
, style, voice, point of view, description, dialogue, scene, theme
These are the elements of fiction (much like line, shape, color, value, texture, and space are the elements of art). Pitching your novel in terms of the elements of fiction often leads to a cluttered query. We’ll look at some examples in a minute. But first, highlight all instances of the following as well:
book, novel, story, follows
, transports, focuses on, is geared to, centers around, is aimed at, opens/begins, ending/conclusion, twist, readers
Now for some examples:
(a) The main character of my book, Jane Smith, is a sixteen-year-old-girl who…
(b) Readers will follow my protagonist, sixteen-year-old Jane Smith, as she…
(c) The novel | opens with Jane Smith, age sixteen…
(d) The plot of my story | centers around sixteen-year-old Jane Smith and opens with a scene in which she…
(e) Told from the point of view of my sixteen-year-old narrator, Jane Smith, this book…
(f) This story about a teen heroine named Jane Smith is aimed at | readers between the ages of…
Sixteen-year-old Jane Smith…
Yes, it really is that simple. Five words. Tack Jane’s goal or the plot’s inciting incident onto the end of that sentence, and you’re off to a solid start. Character. Plot. Conflict. Boom. Let’s go again:
(a) The lush setting of my novel is really a character in and of itself…
(b) Through my unique style and voice, my use of beautiful description, and my finely crafted narrative, I transport the reader to a world where startling plot | twists…
(c) The witty dialogue between the hero and villain will keep readers laughing as they turn the pages toward the unexpected conclusion…
In 99% of queries I read, this kind of thing is 100% unnecessary. It’s dangerous to devote your query letter’s valuable real estate to pitching the elements of fiction instead of pitching your fiction. Why? Because then it’s tough for your slush reader to know what’s on the table—to evaluate whether your manuscript is a good fit for her agency, or whether it might sell well in the current market.
Remember: Editors buy books based on memorable characters, and on plots driven by conflict and tension. The elements of fiction are important to your craft, but they don’t tell a slush reader much about what’s actually happening on the page.
Let’s do one more. This time we’ll not only declutter, but we’ll also start crafting a more focused, plot-specific query pitch:
This novel | focuses on | themes of redemption and forgiveness by following young protagonist Jane Smith as she comes of age during the Depression…
As Jane Smith comes of age during the Depression, [insert goal, inciting incident, motivation, or stakes]…
But what about redemption and forgiveness? Can’t I mention my themes in my query? Sure you can, but avoid being vague:
As Jane Smith comes of age during the Depression, she’s forced to make tough choices that will have long-standing consequences on her future, ultimately leading her to learn about redemption and forgiveness…
No elements of fiction mentioned—yay!—but this is the type of sentence my eyes skip right over when I’m reading query letters. I want to get to the plot! Tell us what happens on the page! What do you make poor Jane Smith go through to show that her tough choices and their consequences are going to lead to redemption and forgiveness? Try this:
As Jane Smith comes of age during the Depression, she’s forced to choose between a California dairy-farm job that will help feed her seven younger sisters and the love of a boy whose promise to whisk her away to India leads her to betray her family in the time of their greatest need. When she returns from the East six months later…
Now we’re talking! Here’s the start of a clear, specific query pitch focused on character and plot…and not a single element in fiction in sight.
If you’ve been following along with your own query letter, highlighter in hand, I hope this article has helped you find some ways to declutter. Just remember: Instead of pitching the elements of fiction, pitch your fiction.
by Gail Carriger
From New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger comes the delightful sequel to Prudence.
Rue and the crew of the Spotted Custard return from India with revelations that shake the foundations of England’s scientific community. Queen Victoria is not amused, the vampires are tetchy, and something is wrong with the local werewolf pack. To top it all off, Rue’s best friend Primrose keeps getting engaged to the most unacceptable military types.
Rue has family problems as well. Her vampire father is angry, her werewolf father is crazy, and her obstreperous mother is both. Worst of all, Rue’s beginning to suspect what they really are… is frightened.
Buy It Here:
Break of Day
by Mari Madison
There’s a chance of a heat wave for the crew at News 9 San Diego…
Asher Anderson is an amazing surfer—with a body to match—but he’s pretty much the world’s worst weatherman. He’d prefer to catch the perfect swells in the morning so he tapes his forecasts in advance—it never rains much in San Diego anyway. The suits at News 9, however, would love to fire him, but since he’s the son of the station owner, they’ll just have to get creative…
Piper Strong thinks she’s scored her dream job when she’s promoted to weather producer. Glorified babysitter is more like it—she’s now responsible for bringing Asher back to shore. The problem is she’s afraid of the water, and she wasn’t counting on her growing attraction to Asher. But if Piper can just weather this storm, she’ll be able to carve out a career to be proud of—and maybe even a place in her heart for love….
Buy It Here:
by Jasinda Wilder
New York Times bestselling author Jasinda Wilder presents the conclusion to Madame X’s thrilling saga of discovery.
My name is Madame X.
My heart is torn in two.
And now I have to choose…
Caleb is everything to her: lover, caretaker, the man who gave her life meaning when she had none. But as she seeks the truth about herself and her past, she discovers that unravelling Caleb’s web of lies might very well be impossible.
Logan is everything she never knew she wanted: freedom, joy, and a passion she couldn’t anticipate. But is Logan’s love enough to save her from herself, from Caleb, and from the tumultuous truth of her past?
Caught between two equally compelling men, X must make the ultimate choice. But there’s more at stake than just her heart…
Buy It Here: