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July 2017
A Message from Kristin Nelson

9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 9

Kristin Nelson

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click
For Part 3, click
For Part 4, click
For Part 5, click
For Part 6, click
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:

  • “Two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s what I learned the summer I turned sixteen.”
  • “My grandmother always told me ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Boy, was she right.”
  • “If only I knew then what I know now.”
  • “My father’s favorite saying was ‘the key to failure is trying to please everybody.'”
  • “Life is like playing the violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”

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.

Recent News
Think Like an Agent

Unpacking #NLAPitch 2017

By Joanna MacKenzie

All of us at NLA are still walking on air following the first ever Twitter #NLAPitch day, which took place Wednesday, June 21. We are beyond humbled that so many amazing writers participated. Sure, we were hoping for some tweets, but we did not expect our event to be—dare I say it?—such a huge success. In the end, we received more than 3,500 tweets in 8 hours, and #NLAPitch was a top-five Twitter trends in the US.

As this was our first foray into the land of online pitching, we spent the last couple of weeks unpacking the experience. (Would you expect any less of us?) We’d love to share what worked and what didn’t, both on the author and agent side, so we’re all better prepared for our next pitch fest.

The Pitches That Worked: Hats off to anyone who has pitched their project in tweet form. This takes the idea of “elevator pitch” to a whole new level. 140 characters to get an agent’s attention isn’t a lot to work with. Overall, the tweets that really resonated with us are the ones that used great mash-ups. You know, “Heather Gudenkauf meets Rainbow Rowell in my novel…” These helped us get a sense of the story and how it would stand apart on the shelf. Plus they demonstrated that the author is savvy about the marketplace. If you’ve never tried to find the perfect mash-up for your work, I’d suggest giving it a go. Ask friends who have read your work for suggestions.

A Mash-Up with a Twist: On the whole, whetting our appetite with the story’s twist really worked. We loved pitches that included the word “but” to hint at the story’s conflict (character-in-ordinary-world BUT complication!). Another similar example: “James was ready for summer camp in this Fault In Our Stars meets Since You Were Gone…until the zombies showed up.”

Vague Descriptions Are a No-Go: “Hero and heroine have to band together to destroy evil overlord once and for all” basically summarizes 80%+ of all the plots in our slush pile at any given time, so this just doesn’t stand out. 140 characters may be daunting, but remember your job is to make your story jump out at us, so tell us why your hero is different, what makes your heroine unique, and why your evil overlord is unlike any we’ve seen.

Lists of Generic Words/Phrases Another No-Go: “Evil unicorns. Pirates. Psychic twins. A love triangle. An epic quest for stolen treasure.” This also doesn’t help us understand your story. Be more specific!

So Many Hashtags: Genre hashtags are a great way to show agents what you’re pitching without wasting precious characters on lengthy explanation. Still, there’s a fine line between using hashtags that describe your project and attributing too many genres to your work. Don’t worry, we had to look some of the hashtags up at the beginning of the day too.

When to Stop Tweeting: Once an agent likes one of your pitches, stop tweeting. You got what you came for, right? In fact, it’s a little confusing. I found myself wondering if an author was testing me by continuing to send out tweets about their project after I had liked it. If I failed to like it the second time around, would I miss out on the submission?

Be Prepared to Submit Right Away: If you’re participating in a Twitter pitch event, the expectation is that you’re ready to send the requested materials right away and that you have a completed manuscript that’s ready to be seen by an agent. We’re definitely going to make that clearer next time and limit the post-event submission period. It’s been almost a month, and we’re still seeing #NLAPitch emails popping up in our inbox!

New Guidelines: (a) We admit that we have some growing to do here. Some authors got likes from more than one agent, so they sent one email to each agent. Other authors had multiple pitches liked, so they sent one email per liked pitch. This was overwhelming. Going forward, ONE EMAIL ONLY will definitely be a new guideline. (b) Future pitch fests will most likely be limited to a specific genre. (c) We also learned that an 8-hour pitch fest is too long—it took us all out of commission for a few days between reading tweets and reading queries. But what a great problem to have! Always make sure that you are familiar with any pitch fest’s guidelines before you follow up on any likes.

Keep yours eye peeled for our next event. We can’t wait for NLAPitch 2.0.

Kristin's Book Club

An Introspective Summer Read

As you already know from June’s newsletter, my book club is tackling the nonfiction work Makers and Takers: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street by Rana Foroohar. And we’ll discuss it…eventually…once the summertime crush is over and we’ve headed into fall and more sane schedules. That’s the advantage of having been a book club for 19 years. We don’t get too bent out of shape if we have to go on hiatus for the summer months.

But what to read in the meantime? A good friend of mine sent me a copy of The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs. I realize that I’m bucking the trend for the traditional summer beach read, but I absolutely fell into this amazing work. So beautifully written. So funny yet heart-wrenching at the same time. I personally don’t mind a little complexity and introspection in my summer read. And maybe, just maybe, you are a bit like me. If so, pick this one up and learn a little more about the power of living every moment.

“Poet Nina Riggs was only 37, the mother of two young sons, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within a year she had lost her mother to multiple myeloma—and learned her own cancer was terminal as well. Riggs died last February, leaving behind this deeply affecting memoir, a simultaneously heartbreaking and funny account of living with loss and the specter of death. As she lyrically, unflinchingly details her reality, she finds beauty and truth that comfort even amid the crushing sadness.”

People (Book of the Week)

New Releases

A Kiss Before Doomsday

by Laurence MacNaughton

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver’s sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind—Dru Jasper, proprietor of the Crystal Connection and newly minted sorceress.

Though Dru has learned how to harness the powers of her crystals, she’s in over her head. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world.

Dru’s only chance to stop him requires tracking down her would-be boyfriend, hot rod mechanic and half-demon Greyson. Everyone thinks he’s dead, but Dru believes he’s still alive, and finding him is the key to unraveling this evil.

To learn the truth behind the necromancer’s attacks, Dru must team up with her friends, and maybe even an enemy or two. Only Rane’s brawn, Opal’s wisdom, and Salem’s spells can help her infiltrate the necromancer’s hidden lair, stop the prophecy, and save the world. But they need to do it fast before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

Buy It Here:


Say No More

by Liliana Hart

Sometimes the dead do rise…

Dante Malcolm is a man of refined tastes. He was once a part of Britain’s Elite Intelligence Force, but there was a reason he’d never been able to capture Simon Locke, the notorious thief who always seemed to be one step ahead. That’s because Dante and Simon were one and the same, until Dante’s double life eventually caught up with him and now he belongs to the Gravediggers.

Liv Rothschild is a Detective Inspector with Interpol and is the one responsible for catching MI-6’s most notorious agent in his final heist—except the heist killed him. But something has never felt right about his death, and it’s haunted her for months. It was too easy, and Dante Malcolm was too smart to go down that way.

Dante might belong to the Gravediggers in body, but his heart and soul will always belong to the next job. The rest of the team doesn’t know about his alter ego because he made sure the information went missing from his file. So when the job he’s always waited for seems like a possibility, he sneaks out of the country like a thief in the night, only to run into the only woman who’s ever been able to match him in wit—and passion—for the job. Except they’re standing on opposite sides of the law—and only one of them can walk away with the prize.

Buy It Here:

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