“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!
“Antiheroes often have the advantage…” I am in complete agreement with you on that entire paragraph. It is precisely the reason that I left my antagonist with nowhere to go and my hero with a lot to learn.
P.S. I am subscribed to follow your blog, but I do not receive email notifications. Has anyone has this problem before?
I’m sorry to hear of the email problem! It might have to do with the fact that I’ve now moved to a self-hosted blog. Could you please unsubscribe and click on the “Follow” button on the top-right?
Some of those can conflict; for example, my novel’s prologue has more action than the first three regular chapters. (It’s a prologue because it takes place in a different setting than the rest of the story.)
I have a policy about describing characters when they’re first introduced; the only ones who get more than two sentences in a row about their appearance are important characters that the viewpoint character doesn’t already know.
I’ve read that post, and while I agree with a lot of their points, I’m not prologue-averse. I never skip them. What I skip is the color of the flower in the vase if there are two guys fighting to death in the same room, and the author’s giving me interior design details. Seriously??? :):)
A lot of authors manage not to fall into that long description trap in their first chapter, but come later chapters and….All caution goes out of the window. 🙂
And another pet peeve of mine is the opposite of the “perfect character.” Sure, a perfect character is boring, but a character like Bridget Jones (while I like the movie) really annoys me in a novel because the author goes on and on about her extra weight, pimples, her mother’s comments on these flaws, her crooked teeth…You know, all the insecurities of one person crammed into a paragraph or two. I don’t mind some flaws to make the character humane, but there’s only so much insecurity I can take in one go 😀
Hi Pinar! It’s such a joy to read your comments; I’m a big fan of your blog. 🙂
The over-descriptive pitfall is one that Rayne Hall, in particular, mentions time and again in her excellent book, “How to Write Fight Scenes”. She even urges authors to avoid character thoughts altogether, as she explains that, in a real fight, all you can see is the other person’s weapon. You will definitely not reminisce about their motivation, childhood or whatever else, or engage in a spirited dialogue with your opponent (with the delightful exception of the fight scene in Princess’ Bride).
As for the perfect character, I love an imperfect one, but confess I didn’t have in mind crooked teeth! 😀 I just like them flawed, because that makes them more human, therefore more easy to relate to.
Antiheroes often have the advantage here, as a common character arc shows their journey from nice guy/gal to evil monster. Heroes, on the other hand, have nowhere to go. I have noticed in my author interviews that when writers are asked to discuss a character from their book, they often choose the antihero; I suspect this is part of the reason.
Thanks again for visiting. Big fan here! 🙂
I’ve broken the rule of dreams in chapter 1! The way I see it, reading and writing are such subjective entities, anything goes! Going to ignore that rule ;D
Nicholas, I do find your posts so informative and helpful, thanks so much for sharing all that you do. In this case, the first word that came to my mind was ‘Yikes!’ because my memoir starts with a prologue which also happens to be a dream 😉 But maybe since it’s a true story the ‘rules’ are different…
Have a great holiday 🙂
Thanks, I’m so glad you find my posts helpful! 🙂
Yikes, indeed. You pretty much described the opening scene of Pearseus. 😀
As I often say, think of these as guidelines, not rules. In my mind, the important thing is to be true to yourself when writing. Nothing puts off readers like an author who’s pretending to be someone else – everything else matters little.
Yikes again, lol! But yes, what you say is so true. It’s all about being true to what we write…and writing without fear. Prologues, dreams or otherwise 😉
Reblogged this on Random Musings from the Mind of a 30 something writer and commented:
Some industry insights on things to avoid at the beginning of a novel. Though I must be honest and say I have broken a few of these guidelines myself.
During the 3 years I spent writing Necromancer Awakening, the 1st draft began with a prologue, and the 2nd draft began with a dream. 🙂
I’m happy to say the published draft (draft 20 or so) has neither. 🙂
Lol – Schism/Rise started out as a single volume, that has also reached its 20th incarnation. Sadly, Schism does start with a dream. As it only lasts a couple of paragraphs, I hope I get away with it – although I’m sure that explains at least a few of the rejections I’ve got! 😀
Sometimes I use what I call the “time-travel style.” The prologue takes place in the future and a large portion of the story builds up to it. It helps focus your writing. I tend to get lost in my stories and forget the main objective because I want to pour irrelevant things out of my mouth. I’ve used prologues for four of my stories now.
I certainly agree on the descriptions. I’m really bad at them, I like to focus on the action! Just a sentence or two is usually enough.
I think that’s called in media res – starting at the middle. I had never heard of it being used as a prop to keep on the straight and narrow, food thinking! 🙂
I read the other day a post complaining about the lack of descriptions in modern books, and a complaint about Pearseus (by my best man, no less) sprang to mind: Tom said my language lacked poetry. When pressed, he explained that Pearseus misses the more descriptive flourishes he has associated with books. I know what he means, but I think I’ll stick to my “broad strokes” kind of writing…
You may also enjoy the following post by Massimo Marino: https://massimomarinoauthor.com/location-location-location/
Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.
Wonderful advice. I had a writing teacher once who always said, “One must first learn the rules before one breaks them.”
Wise words. Although it also works the other way around: break the rules, suffer the consequences, then you’ll know your limits. For some reason, this seems to be the case with me! 😀
Thanks for the comment and welcome! 🙂
Nobody Knows Anything – https://massimomarinoauthor.com/nobody-knows-anything/
A great post, and a timely reminder. Thanks for the link and welcome! 🙂
Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog….. An Author Promotions Enterprise!.
Lot of good info. Thanks.
Thanks and welcome! Like Massimo pointed out, nobody knows anything. Agents and publishers are among these, or they’d all print nothing but best-sellers. However, I think their views do offer some interesting insight.
Prologues definitely don’t work for me. I always forget what they were about or sometimes they seem out of sink before beginning the novel. Over-use of adjectives and adverbs make my teeth ache.
Great to be reminded every so often. Great post. 🙂
Thanks! 🙂 I see a need for a short prologue in certain circumstances. For example, I have a small summary of the story so far in my third Pearseus book, as I’ve noticed that quite a few readers needed to be reminded of certain major plot points. Not to mention any first-time reader, who would be completely lost!
Then, you get the weird Martin prologues, whose relation to the rest of the story is only gradually revealed. In his last book, I read the whole thing wondering about the prologue. I suspect it may have to do with the next book, as it bore no relation to the story thus far. Much as I love his work, this had to be classified as a fail in my mind…
Okay, I can see in a series, a prologue being helpful. I haven’t read may series and hadn’t thought of that. The ones I have read can be stand alones, but have a continuing story. Thanks for the input. Anyway, good to see another side of prologues. Thank you.
As always, an excellent, well-balanced post! I may steal some of the topics and do an analysis of some of my own books over on my own blog! As for Prologues, my WIP The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars has one. It explains something that comes up early on in the main part of the book. I wonder whether it would be more acceptable if I simply called Chapter One. ??
Thank you so much, you’ve made my day. 🙂 Feel free to use anything you find useful.
Yes, as Charles points out, it seems that for some people it’s the very notion of a prologue that they find offensive! Rename it “Chapter One” and everyone’s happy. 😀
I have read most of these somewhere before, but I noticed that most refer to specific genres and not all are the same. I love a good prologue in fantasy to help build the setting or world. The classics we all know and love break all of these rules. I think contemporary readers are under time constraints (especially agents) and everyone wants it quick in our fast and furious society.
Thank you for the excellent point! What is standard in a genre is anathema in another. And don’t get me started on non-fiction – that has a completely different set of rules!
You’re absolutely right. People come up with arbitrary “rules” to help them shift through an increasingly overwhelming amount of information, from books and magazines to TV shows and movies.
I just knew prologues would be mentioned. I wonder how much of it is the chapter being titled a prologue. Sounds weird, but I’ve heard people rail against them while praising a Chapter 1 that is structured like a prologue.
Lol – I can believe that. Personally, I’m not against prologues, as they can help build the setting. I just like them short and relevant.
I look at them as the place where the background events are set up. Gives me a chance to show what the villains and gods are doing in the world.
Location is supposed to tell you something about the story or the characters. A messy room vs. a tidy one will reveal the owner’s personality etc. Otherwise, it’s redundant, according to the old design principle that anything that’s not information is noise.
Enjoy your holiday! I find nothing more relaxing than a beach.
Thank you! We ended up staying in, as the weather turned nasty on us. The best laid plans of mice and men, right? (Which begs the question – do mice spend their days plotting against us, or something? What was Burns drinking when he came up with that one??)
It’s tricky isn’t it? Do you base your decisions about these things on what happens in the writing you’ve read and enjoyed, or do you do what the modern industry requires. If Graham Greene can take ages to get to the point why am I nor allowed to. If the Children of the New Forest is almost all telling, and yet still a thoroughly enjoyable book, then why can’t I write that way?
Have fun on the beach.
I try to write the kind of story I’d enjoy reading. But I admit to be influenced by other people’s comments, as long as I don’t perceive them as compromising my voice. A highly subjective distinction, I know! 🙂
You may enjoy the following post that deals with that question: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2014/08/18/tweaking-your-writing-and-genre-for-success/
Ah, the beach… When I scheduled the post, it was supposed to be a fun day at the beach, but the weekend turned out cool and rainy. We stayed in, in the end.
Reminds me of Picasso’s words… learn the rules as a painter in order to be able to break them as an artist.
Enjoy the holiday!
Thanks! It was supposed to be a day on the beach, but the weather had other plans, as it started raining… 🙂
I kind of like beaches in the rain.
I don’t mind swimming in the rain (you’re wet already, what’s the worst than can happen?) but a day at the beach is not complete without sunbathing. Or at least that’s what Electra says, while I’m cowering under the umbrella… 😀
Good morning and thank you 🙂
Hi Nicholas, I’ve just read “The worst way to begin a novel”. I’ve made more mistakes than I’d like to admit. I hope my next two novels will be better after reading the above. Juliet
Ach, don’t worry too much about it. It’s a process. I’m reminded of the 92-year-old famous musician (sorry, I’m terrible with names) who was asked in an interview why he still practices. “I’m finally getting good at it,” he replied. 🙂
You’re going to be on the beach! It’s still winter down here in Aus! I can’t wait for my trip to Spain in two weeks (so close!).
I haven’t gotten too far into your book yet (stupid work keeps getting in the way of me having fun) but I really liked the beginning. Especially the dream-trick that you did. That was clever.
Thanks, that’s so kind of you! I guess editors would say it’s one of the worst ways to begin, but there you have it… 😀