“The worst way to begin a novel: advice from literary agents“. That’s the title of a wonderful blog post by the Write Life. Literary agents are like ‘skilled readers’ who have gone through hundreds of novels, acquiring experience; they are also supposed to be in touch with ‘what people want’.
The post is actually quite funny – you should definitely check out the comments – and very informative. It did make me reflect on how I have started my novels and whether I have made some unspeakable mistakes. I kept reading through the posts, holding my breath and cringing about my own writing, saying to myself ‘oh thank God, I didn’t do that’ or ‘Phew, I almost did that’ and ‘oh dear, I might have done that’.
Now, agents obviously have different tastes than the average reader (or the publishing industry would not be in the sorry state it is), so please take these with a large pinch of salt! And always remember that “rules” are to be broken. Not that these are rules, of course – more like guidelines.
Anyway, after that disclaimer, here is the gist of it, along with my comments:
- prologues: not so much! Agents find them boring and think that it’s much better to include the description of the prologue in the actual story plot.
A rule I have broken in Mad Water, the third book of my epic fantasy Pearseus series, since a summary of what’s happened so far only seemed fair: people read a lot of books, and might have forgotten half the plot twists. Hence my one-page “the story so far” prologue.
- no dreams in the first chapter: it makes readers identify with a story plot and/or a character/situation and then realize there was no point it, since it was not real. This can make them feel cheated.
This is a rule I’ve broken in Schism, the very first book in Pearseus, where the first paragraph is a dream that pretty much sets the tone for what’s going to happen in the next few chapters. As no readers have complained about it, I assume they didn’t mind.
- too many descriptive adjectives: “overwriting” is considered the mark of amateurish writing, as is language that’s too rich for its good.
As I always say, don’t let your writing get in the way of your story.
- no long descriptions: it’s all a question of balance between plot and description. You want to create a setting, but describing the colour of the flower in the vase for three paragraph could be dull.
This has a lot to do with each author’s style. I am rather laconic, sketch even, with my descriptions; the greatest compliment a reviewer has paid me was that she has seldom read a book that uses so few words to describe the world. And yet, she said she could visualize it just fine. The reason is that I like to leave as much space to the reader’s imagination as possible: their minds are pretty good at filling the blanks! It is also a matter of personal preference, however, as another reader complained about the lack of lyricism in my writing.
- action: literary agents want action in the first chapter so that they –and the readers- get hooked. Taking your time to “get to it” may drive readers to another book, pronto.
I tend to follow this “rule,” but have also enjoyed books that disregard it. Again, this is a matter of reader preference, but I suspect most people do like a good explosion at the beginning (which is, incidentally, what the hero in Schism prophetically dreams about).
- make the reader want to learn more: the literary agent wants to see something captivating about the character, something that will make her read more in order to discover the plot and how the character unwinds.
No arguing here!
- characters that are too perfect: perfection doesn’t exist in real life (my wife is rare exception, obviously) and it almost certainly shouldn’t in novels either.
Depending on your genre, the extremely pretty woman with the flawless skin and the athletic body might put off some readers (again, unless you’re describing Electra, in which case, stop it, it’s creepy).
- don’t describe your characters fully in the first chapter: a), it’s boring, b) you really need to leave mystery for the rest of the book. A little hook is good!
This ties in with the “long description” tip above, and is something I do follow. I consider a line or two about the characters to be a good introduction; further information about them can follow down the line. Of course, if one of them has a hideous scar covering half their face, it might be a good idea to mention it first: describe the things you would normally see in people. A scar might be the first you’d notice, before the hazel eyes.
- unrealistic situations: literary agents feel that however inventive and imaginative a book can be, some things have to remain genuine and authentic, especially when it comes to human reactions. Make it real!
I once read an otherwise excellent book, where the horribly tortured hero has sex a couple of days later. I wrote to the author to suggest that this might be a tad unrealistic…
You will find many other pet hates of literary agents; I just summarized a few that seemed remarkable to me. However, I will say that I have read books that started with many of the ‘bête-noir’ described above and I enjoyed them. In the end, it all depends on how good you are at breaking the rules, and on what your readership likes to read!
When you read these lines, I’ll (hopefully) be on a beach, catching some sunshine. So, please forgive me if I take longer than usual to answer any comments!