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August 2017
A Message from Kristin Nelson

Fantasy Openings To Avoid or To Very Carefully Consider

Kristin Nelson

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.

Pub Rants University

Perfecting the Query Pitch – a 2-Part Webinar Intensive 2017-09-20

Learn to Write the Perfect Query Letter

Wednesday, September 20 at 6:00 - 8:00 PM MT

Sessions: 2 consecutive Wednesdays, September 20 and 27, 2017

Class Limit: 15

Please note: This Webinar is primarily a workshop and does not constitute a query letter submission to Nelson Literary Agency. Only fiction submissions are eligible for this Webinar (no memoirs or non-fiction works, please).

Description:

Most writers will tell you that writing a good query letter is more difficult than writing the whole manuscript. How do you distill the essence of a 300+ page novel into one pithy pitch paragraph for your query? In this 2-Part intensive, you’ll find out.

This Webinar will be taught by Agent Kristin.

In part one on Wednesday, September 20, Agent Kristin will walk you through how to write a standout query letter pitch while avoiding common pitfalls. After learning the inside scoop, participants will have a chance to revise their query letter pitch for part 2 of the Webinar. Participants will also be paired with a fellow participant critique partner. Teamwork will help to create the best possible query letter.

In part two on Wednesday, September 27, Agent Kristin will do a live reading of your revised pitch query letters. Nothing speaks louder or more directly to your query letter’s effectiveness than the on-the-spot feedback of an agent, so don’t miss this opportunity.

What You’ll Learn:
•    How to compose a basic, four-part query letter.
•    How to distill your novel into a clear, concise pitch paragraph that will inspire agents to request sample pages.
•    How to position yourself in the current market in terms of word count, genre, and comparable titles or authors.
•    The truth about why so few query letters lead to requests for sample pages.
•    How to revise your pitch.

Extras:
•    Agent Kristin 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.

Who should attend? Writers who:
•    Have completed a novel and are ready to begin their search for an agent. (Please note that this Webinar is not for writers of memoirs or works of nonfiction.)
•    Have already been querying but have gotten no requests for sample pages.
•    Will be attending a conference soon where they will be pitching to an agent.

Register Now
Recent News
Think Like an Agent

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.

Kristin's Book Club

While book club is on summer hiatus until September, I snuck in another terrific read. Long on my TBR pile was Angie Thomas’s THE HATE U GIVE. I bought the audio book, which is important to note because I already owned two hardcover copies. Why buy it yet a third time? I purchased the audio book because I wanted to hear the voices of the story in a way that simply reading the book wouldn’t quite accomplish.

Audio narrator Bahni Turpin gives a stunning performance. I believe that this novel will become canon, one of the classics, and not just a novel echoing today’s headlines.

This is a book you’ll read, finish, and then pick back up to read it again.

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

New Releases

Warcross

by Marie Lu

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Marie Lu—when a game called Warcross takes the world by storm, one girl hacks her way into its dangerous depths.

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

In this sci-fi thriller, #1 New York Times bestselling author Marie Lu conjures an immersive, exhilarating world where choosing who to trust may be the biggest gamble of all.

Buy It Here:

       

Nyxia

by Scott Reintgen

“A high-octane thriller . . . Nyxia grabs you from the first line and never lets go.” —Marie Lu, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Young Elites series

Every life has a price in this sci-fi thriller that has the nonstop action of The Maze Runner and the high-stakes space setting of Illuminae. This is the first in a new three-book series called the Nyxia Triad that will take a group of broken teens to the far reaches of the universe and force them to decide what they’re willing to risk for a lifetime of fortune.

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why the Babel Corporation recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family.

Forever.

Before long, Emmett discovers that he is one of ten recruits, all of whom have troubled pasts and are a long way from home. Now each recruit must earn the right to travel down to the planet of Eden—a planet that Babel has kept hidden—where they will mine a substance called Nyxia that has quietly become the most valuable material in the universe.

But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. And Emmett will face the ultimate choice: win the fortune at any cost, or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise what it means to be human.

Buy It Here:

       

Love and Other Consolation Prizes

by Jamie Ford

From the bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet comes a powerful novel, inspired by a true story, about a boy whose life is transformed at Seattle’s epic 1909 World’s Fair.

“An evocative, heartfelt, beautifully crafted story that shines a light on a fascinating, tragic bit of forgotten history.”—Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale

For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off—a healthy boy “to a good home.”

The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam’s precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known—and against all odds, this new sporting life gives him the sense of home he’s always desired.

But as the grande dame succumbs to an occupational hazard and their world of finery begins to crumble, all three must grapple with hope, ambition, and first love.

Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle’s second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.

Against a rich backdrop of post-Victorian vice, suffrage, and celebration, Love and Other Consolations is an enchanting tale about innocence and devotion—in a world where everything, and everyone, is for sale.

Buy It Here:

       

Beach, Breeze, Bloodshed

by John Keyse-Walker

Sun, Sand, Murder by John Keyse-Walker is a winner. It is written with the coral clarity of a Caribbean atoll, and evokes an edgy rhythm that suits the protagonist, Teddy Creque, and his wholly authentic domain, the Virgin Islands.”—Randy Wayne White

After barely surviving the first criminal investigation in living memory on the sun-drenched British Virgin island of Anegada, Constable Teddy Creque has spent the past six months trying to weather the aftermath, and move on with his life. Now, with a promotion and a medal of honor, he’s newly committed to the job. So when a young woman dies in a shark attack off the coast of a neighboring island, Virgin Gorda, Teddy is happy to help when Deputy Commissioner Howard Lane orders him to capture the man-eater. But when Teddy arrives on Virgin Gorda, he begins to suspect there was human foul play involved, too.

After all, the sharks around the idyllic island aren’t known for attacking humans, and there are some oddities at the scene. Unfortunately, while Teddy is convinced that the woman’s death wasn’t accidental, not everyone on the island takes kindly to his meddling, and he’s forced to be creative in his pursuit of justice. In unfamiliar territory, and with his sole witness a silent child who communicates in unorthodox ways, Teddy must earn the trust of the reserved residents of the touristy island, tangle with a loquacious parrot, and follow the clues which might lead him directly into the path of a killer.

John Keyse-Walker, the winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award, has written another taut, witty mystery that will keep readers mesmerized from the opening page to the stunning conclusion.

Buy It Here:

       

A Conspiracy in Belgravia

by Sherry Thomas

The game is afoot as Charlotte Holmes returns in USA Todaybestselling author Sherry Thomas’s Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series.

Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Buy It Here:

       

Machine Learning

by Hugh Howey

A new collection of stories, including some that have never before been seen, from the New York Times best-selling author of the Silo trilogy

Hugh Howey is known for crafting riveting and immersive page-turners of boundless imagination, spawning millions of fans worldwide, first with his best-selling novel Wool, and then with other enthralling works such as Sand and Beacon 23.

Now comes Machine Learning, an impressive collection of Howey’s science fiction and fantasy short fiction, including three stories set in the world of Wool, two never-before-published tales written exclusively for this volume, and fifteen additional stories collected here for the first time. These stories explore everything from artificial intelligence to parallel universes to video games, and each story is accompanied by an author’s note exploring the background and genesis of each story.

Howey’s incisive mind makes Machine Learning: New and Collected Storiesa compulsively readable and thought-provoking selection of short works—from a modern master at the top of his game.

Buy It Here:

       
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