Monday, August 31, 2009
I'll sneak comments in where I'm guilty or have a pet peeve***
What Agents Hate
September 22, 2008
by Chuck Sambuchino (Writer's Digest, Link at bottom of page)
Literary Reps vent about their Chapter 1 turn-offs.
Ask any literary agent what they’re looking for in a novel’s first chapter and they’ll all say the same thing: “Good writing that hooks me in.” Agents appreciate the same elements of good writing that readers do. They want action; they want compelling characters and a reason to read on; they want to feel an immediate connection with your writing.
But what about all those things they don’t want to see? Obvious mistakes such as grammatical errors and awkward writing aside, writers need to be conscious of Chapter 1 clichés and typical agent pet peeves—either of which can get a rejection letter sent your way.
Here, dozens of established literary agents vent about everything they can’t stand to see in your all-important first chapter.
“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
—Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
—Laurie McLean, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents
Prologues are my pet peeve - I know why people do them, because it is really easy to drop stuff in that you don't want to deal with later. But at the same time, I know what or how I read, and most agents (the gods we worship) have remarked negatively time and again.
That said, I am guilty of the backstory non-prologue beginning. Belongs in the same court, when you have one of those conversations or scenes where nothing happens, but you reveal everything about the world setting and the characters before putting the train on the tracks. I'M SO GUILTY! Laurie McLean was the agent who gave me that huge eye-opening email on the problem - for which I thank her muchly.
“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress—with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves—sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”
—Laurie McLean, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents
“Slow writing with a lot of description puts me off very quickly. I like a first chapter that moves quickly and draws me in so I’m immediately hooked.”
—Andrea Hurst, Andrea Hurst Literary Management
“Avoid any description of the weather.”
—Denise Marcil, Denise Marcil Literary Agency
“In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom—and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon—not admiring the view.”
—Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency
Description? I don't do it, but sometimes don't really have a problem when other people do it. I read fantasy though. You must have lots of description to set up a world and make it something new and different for the reader. Some fantasy writers do this very well too. <- I don't. I'm terribly general when it comes to describing things, so I try to avoid it whenever possible.
Weather? Oddly, this made me twitch guiltily as I thought about the raining downpour at the beginning of my book. It was not described further than a sentence though.
Slow writing - guilty. At least while editing, I noticed some scenes which I put in originally to expand characters, but which I didn't need at all. It takes time and distance before you get to that point when you recognize that kind of problem. Unless you are an experience writer, I suppose... I notice with my current wips, I'm more likely to keep things fast paced and charging towards a goal.
Unrealistic circumstances - that made me laugh. And yet it goes back to what I mentioned and worried about in a previous post. How much of what we write is the way it is because we want it to be that way? Do we take a moment to discern how realistic something is? Or do we try to back up everything with 'reasons why'?
VOICE AND POINT OF VIEW
“A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point of view. How can a reader follow what’s happening? I also dislike beginning with a killer’s POV. Who would want to be in such an ugly place? I feel like a nasty voyeur.”
—Cricket Freeman, The August Agency
“An opening that’s predictable won’t hook me in. If the average person could have come up with the characters and situations, I’ll pass. I’m looking for a unique outlook, voice, or character and situation.”
—Debbie Carter, Muse Literary Management
“Avoid the opening line: ‘My name is … .’ ”
—Michelle Andelman, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
The 'my name is' opening line made me laugh. Fortunately, while tempted, I haven't actually begun a story that way. The reason why it's a problem is it emphasizes the first person pov before the reader even has a chance to get into the story. It pushes them out.
“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter 1 in which nothing happens.”
—Jessica Regel, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency
“ ‘The weather’ is always a problem—the author feels he has to set up the scene and tell us who the characters are, etc. I like starting a story in medias res.”
—Elizabeth Pomada, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents
“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly.
“An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue. Or opening with a hook that’s just too convoluted to be truly interesting.”
—Daniel Lazar, Writers House
The first one flagged by Jessica Regel is one that I'm constantly struggling over. I'm weak with beginnings. It's the point of the book when I like to dither and get my feet wet before I jump in.
CLICHÉS AND FALSE BEGINNINGS
“I hate it when a book begins with an adventure that turns out to be a dream at the end of the chapter.”
—Mollie Glick, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency
“I don’t want to read about anyone sleeping, dreaming, waking up or staring at anything.”
—Ellen Pepus, Ellen Pepus Literary Agency
“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter 1. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
—Cricket Freeman, The August Agency
Oh gosh! Pet peeves galore. People don't DO any of this!!!!
CHARACTERS AND BACKSTORY
“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable
and boring. No ‘flowing, wind-swept golden locks’; no ‘eyes as blue as the sky’; no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’ ”
—Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency
“[I dislike] inauthentic dialogue to tell the reader who the characters are, instead of showing who the characters are.”
—Jennifer Cayea, Avenue A Literary
“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them—it’s in their DNA.
“To paraphrase Bruno Bettelheim: ‘The more the character in a fairy tale is described, the less the audience will identify with him. … The less the character is characterized and described, the more likely the reader is to identify with him.’ ”
—Adam Chromy, Artists and Artisans
“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”
—Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management
“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”
—Rachelle Gardner, WordServe Literary
Same as above - I know the whole need to do backstory etc, because it helps the writer just as much as a reader. On the other hand, there are ways of doing it and hiding it. Most people (including me) aren't deft enough with the wording to hide a blatant infodump. It's generally noticable, especially to somebody who hasn't read or written the novel.
/Link to WD article