Monday, June 16, 2014

Playing With Fire & Insisting Authors Ignore Agents' Advice

During some rare downtime at the hair salon last week, I saw an article, The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents, while scrolling through Facebook feed. Because it resonated with me, I made a mental note to read it thoroughly in preparation for this post. When I went back and tried to locate it, I found that the excerpts included within it had been shared ad nauseam.

Despite the fact that everyone has seen these pieces of 'advice', I can't shy away from this post because - unlike others - I have no intention of putting them out there as if they are cold hard facts, ones that authors must live and die by. Instead, I plan to play with fire and suggest that authors could and should IGNORE these literary agents' 'words of wisdom' in most situations. Based on the evidence I put forth, I believe everyone will see that an author can still write a bestselling novel complete with an epic story and unforgettable characters even if he or she chooses to ignore the 'don't' list summarized in the Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books.
I may not have a bestseller (yet), but I am now and have always been an avid reader. As a reader, I know what I like in a book, and as an author, I know what it takes to build a story. I also am not a literary agent, but I can assure you that some of the best authors in the world have been turned down by some of the best literary agents in the world because that author's writing style/story plot was not in line with that of the agent's. It does not mean those stories were not powerful or worth telling (see JK Rowling's attempts at getting The Cuckoo’s Calling published as Robert Galbraith). It simply means the agent 'could not find a unique selling-point with which to market it'.
This post is not being written in order to challenge an agent's right to accept or decline an author's query for representation. I'm a firm believer that an author needs an advocate who can support him/her at all times. If the agent does not immediately 'get' what the author is saying/doing/envisioning, a partnership will never be successful. Everyone knows you can't shove a round peg into a square hole, and that's exactly what it would be like if the agent and author were not on the same page. It's in everyone's best interest for the agent to admit right away that he/she will never be able to make the concessions necessary to shepherd the author to success, leaving the author free to continue his or her search for the person who might be able to help him/her.
As an author, I understand the agent-finding dilemma better than most and maybe not as good as others. After querying a few agents, I've come to the conclusion that querying is similar to dating. By this, I'm suggesting that you have to date a lot of frogs - query a lot of agents - before you find your prince charming - sign with an representative. If you want to be in a relationship - have your book traditionally published - you have to put yourself - your manuscript - out there. Then, it's with bated breath and more anxiety than anyone could ever imagine that you wait to see if you - your manuscript - will be worthy of a call back - a first chapter request. When the request for a second date - a full manuscript - never comes, you move on. Keep dating - keep querying.
After reading this Facebook feed article (and realizing that even JK Rowling herself had problems getting an agent), I completely understand why it is so difficult for unknown authors to find an agent to represent them. Some part of the challenge has to do with the agent's throwing around their preferences and opinion as if they and they alone have the power to decide if a book is worthy of publishing... is worthy of making it to a bestseller list.
Let me be perfectly clear: THERE IS NO EXACT RECIPE FOR WRITING A BESTSELLER. These agents (including the ones who turned down JK Rowling) can't tell an author what to do or when to do it in a way that will guarantee success. These agents can decide if they are going to represent an author and that author can decided if they can abide by their 'preferences' and avoid their 'peeves' but doing so will not carry with it guarantees.
Because there is no exact recipe and until someone can prove otherwise, the author who envisions the story should have the right to decide how the novel is written, arranged, and/or told. She/he are the crafters of the yarn, meaning they alone understand what needs to be told and when... how much of the back-story must be provided at the beginning so that the middle and end are seamless (and less confusing) to the reader... how much description is required (not required). Authors have a responsibility to the readers, and that responsibility is to spin a great tale that will turn these characters into friends/family/enemies... that will have the readers' heart racing, bellies full of butterflies, and hands shaking with anxiety. Periodically, those same readers will laugh. Other times, they will cry.
Authors have an obligation to use everything at their disposal in order to accomplish this goal because those special connections and unforgettable moments can't happen in a world where creativity is stifled just because an agent/publisher/reviewer assumes their way is the only way or that their preferences are the only ones worthy of representation/publishing/great reviews.
Creativity starts with a blank page and an author who is free to do what she/he needs to do in order to make the story as good as it can be. It can't be crippled in the beginning with silly rules like the ones suggested below by some of the country's best known agents.
False beginnings
“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
Now, I have no idea who Cricket is, and I've never even heard of The August Agency (forgive me if that offends anyone). I'm confident that they (and the other agencies listed below) are wonderful at what they do and have many amazing authors who work with them and for them. I'm just as sure there are amazing books whereby the reader learns of the characters death long before the characters are important to them. As such, I cannot blindly follow this subjective advice.
A perfect example would be Lolita. The book's fictional "Foreword" states that Humbert dies of coronary thrombosis upon finishing his manuscript. It also states that Mrs. Richard Schiller [Lolita] died giving birth to a stillborn girl on Christmas Day, 1952, at the age of 17. No one knows anything about these characters at that point in the book, but after reading their story, the readers understand the significance of the characters' deaths. I'm not sure cheated is how the book's many readers have felt, and I'm thankful Vladimir Nabokov didn't write the story concerning himself with Cricket's perception that she might one day feel cheated.
“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
Along the same lines, I'd like to suggest that Mrs. McLean might actually be stifling creativity with her subjective suggestion. I offer up one of my favorite movies of all time as evidence, The Matrix. In the dystopian future, reality is nothing more than perception simulated by "the Matrix". I'm absolutely sure Ms. McLean would insist that she was not suggesting that the genius behind this story (one where the main character is actually asleep/unconscious while the world is lived around him) be muted, but I have to wonder if a young or new author who is diligently following her suggestions will ever write a story this unique. The possibility that these agents' advice will be read and deemed the golden standard concerns me because I see a literary world stripped of unexpected gems, ones like The Matrix. Even more frustrating is the possibility that authors/agents/publishers might eventually automatically count out these types of stories because they've been told via this advice that they'll never be bestsellers. Let's face it. At the end of the day, that's what they're looking for. A bestseller.
In science fiction
“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.”
I'm not big into science fiction, but I can assure you that one of the best books I've read this year, Red Risingspends the first two pages describing what can only be called strange landscapes. In fact, Pierce Brown actually embedded maps into the first few pages of the book so that the reader could fully comprehend the 'landscape' and its importance to the story. Fortunately, there was both a forward thinking agent/publisher who didn't agree with this advice and gave Red Rising's fans an amazing story.
“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
“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!”
This piece of advice (coming from three different agencies, to boot) actually made me chuckle. I love a prologue. Both in my writing and my reading. It is also the easiest 'don't' to disprove. Star Wars. Need I say more. There are others. Many, many others (Romeo and Juliet), but I won't even begin to pretend this 'don't' is worth discussing. There are times when it is important to a story because it can establish the setting and give background details or some earlier story that ties into the main one. I'm all for letting the author make the call and not an agent whose flippancy might actually weaken the story in the long run.
Exposition and description
“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”
“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
 “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.”
I'll be the first to admit that I like a story with descriptions. I love an author who can make me feel like I'm part of the characters' world. That means that I expect to know and understand the sights, sounds, smells, etc. surrounding the characters and their story. It is the only way that I can experience the story the way it was meant to be experienced. I'll also agree there is an art to storytelling, meaning only the most gifted of authors can pull this off.
At the same time, I'd like for agents and publishers to stop thinking of all readers as tempestuous children who need a lollipop to quiet them. I'm not in search of a quick easy in and out story. I'm in search of the next great thing. One of my favorite stories of all time, The Night Circus, is one such book. The descriptions are so phenomenal that you can't help but believe you've just attended a circus. No, scratch that. After you've read the book, you want to go to a circus. You crave it because you are desperate to see the sights and hear the sounds and smell the scents as described by Erin Morgenstern.
In response to the 'laundry list of character descriptions' and as a reader, I'd like to point out that I love a complete description of the characters. I want to see them the way the author sees them... not the way I envision them in my mind, and when the author doesn't give that to me, I find that the characters are fuzzy balls of dust when I imagine them after I've read the book and I try to remember the character's traits and features. Again - and obviously just my opinion - I love to know what the characters look like, and I like that information early on so that I'm not left guessing or assuming the whole book.
Starting too slowly
“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”
“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 One in which nothing happens.”
Is there any slower beginning to a story than Matched by Allyson Braithwaite Condie? Maybe not, but it does not change the fact that it's an amazing book/series. Again, I have a problem with agents painting all writing styles with such a broad stroke, and I worry that the authors creating these stories are going to change the way they write in order to conform. When they do, readers everywhere are going to miss out on the next epic story.
In crime fiction
“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times.”
The recurring theme here is that some of these agents have quite a few 'opinions' on what should be done and what shouldn't be done. As for me, something as simple as 'someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel' is not a 'flaw' to get worked up over. If the story is good, the plot is solid, and the premise is one that is intriguing to readers of this genre, I'd say 'get over it'.
In fantasy
“Cliché openings in fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is).”
Sometimes cliché is where it's at. I just finished reading the Half-Blood: Covenant, Book 1 by Jennifer L. Armentrout. It absolutely begins in the heat of the battle. That does nothing to keep the book/series from being good enough to keep me up at night reading or to prevent me from dreaming about the characters of the story when I finally do go to sleep. For me and like I've said several times now, it's not about these tiny peeves. It's about the story, the writing, the characters, etc.
“I know this may sound obvious, but too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how.”
Now, this is one piece of advice I can get behind (though I'd never issue it as a blanketed recommendation). I do believe there are certain things that need to be told and others that need to be shown through the telling of the story, the character's dialogue/actions, and evolution of events.
“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.”
- Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary (the only link I could not find)
I think it's important to minimize extravagant descriptions (when it's not relevant), but it's equally important to mention that there are those who believe Twilight is the perfect example of purple prose. I don't agree with this opinion at all which is exactly the reason I believe purple prose writing might be 'all in the eyes of the beholder' and an impossible piece of advice to follow.
“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.”
Obviously, the difference between cheesy and not cheesy (purple prose and not purple prose) can be as simple as who is presenting it and to whom it's being presented. I'm inclined to believe that the opening of the book provides a very good idea of how the rest of the book is going to go. As a reader, I'd rather know right away the book is going to be filled with 'overtly sexual dialogue' so that I can make a conscious decision to keep going or close the book and move on.
 “I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. There are far better ways in Chapter One to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader.”
I'm going to assume Ms. Andelman is not a fan of My Name is Memory, a book written by Ann Brashares. Ms. Brashares has written numerous books including Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I've not read this particular book, but I'm suggesting that you can even name the book 'My Name is...' as long as there is some meat and potatoes behind it.
“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.”
Yes... this is true. For me, every character is important in the telling of a story, but every character can't be a main character. Honestly, from this excerpt, I'm not sure I can gleam much information. Does it mean that authors should make supporting characters boring and that - for goodness sakes - they shouldn't make them compelling. I certainly don't know the context from which this piece of advice originated, but as an author, I can say that periodically, I have characters that are introduced in one book and come back in other books. It might be that the character is being introduced with a plan for future greatness.
In romance
“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.”
Again... I'm going to have to agree with Ms. Nelson (though I'd never use such strong language as 'can't stand'). Even as a writer who is willing to embrace all kinds of scenarios, I'm not sure I can do anything more with the story line where a strange man is in a woman's bedroom uninvited but make the woman frightened beyond belief.
In a Christian novel
“A rape scene in a Christian novel in the first chapter.”
It's very hard for me to take much from this 'don't' because there is no context. I'm not convinced that a Christian novel can't include a rape scene... if the author is recreating a modern day version of one of the many Bible stories suggesting that woman were enslaved and/or raped. (I'm not suggesting it's right either.) I'm simply suggesting that we don't know where the author was going because we didn't read the excerpt(s) Mr. MacGregor read.
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.’ ”
This 'don't' is nothing more than personal preference, and I'll be honest that almost every book I've read in the last five years has perfect and unflawed characters, meaning I'm not sure Ms. Bradford's advice is solid enough to follow. In my experience, there are readers - lots of them - looking for perfection in their characters and their authors.
“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.”
I actually like everything about Mr. Chromy's advice, and I have every intention of building character DNA based on his simple - yet powerful - suggestion.
“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.”
Red flag seems like a strong label for a technique that is done all the time and in many books. In fact, it has proven quite successful and appears to be a reader satisfier. As both a reader and an author, I'm not sure I could call this technique a red flag that should be avoided at all costs. Instead, I'd say he should be used judiciously.
“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.”
I know where Ms. Gardner is going with this, but again, I have to insist that there are bestselling authors/novels that that use this technique. Maybe the important point here is that the characters must continue to evolve and/or only the need-to-know information should be front-loaded and the rest should be rolled out slowly so that the reader can enjoy meeting and getting to know the characters.
Truly, my goal here was not to go rogue and dispute every piece of advice provided (noting that I did find some hidden gems) by these professionals. It was simply to point out that blindly following these suggestions might actually weaken an author's story and prevent him or her from elevating themselves, their characters, and their story to their fullest potential. I worry that people everywhere will assume authors who use these techniques are weak when in fact they are strong for telling the story the best way possible by using tried and true techniques. I want authors to do what they need to do to tell their story. After it's completed, give it to the readers themselves if they can't capture the attention of an agent/publisher, step back, and see what the real experts - the only ones who matter - think.
Trust me, being an unrepresented indie author is not a bad thing at all. Just ask these bestselling authors: M. Leighton, Abbi Glines, John Grisham, Amanda Hocking, E.L. James, Bella Andre, Courtney Cole, Samantha Young, Jennifer L. Armentrout, Teresa Mummert, and the list goes on.... 
I'd venture a guess that the very people providing advice in this article are ones who turned down at least one unsolicited query from an author who can now proudly boast that he/she is a bestselling author. Sometimes staying true to the story and a healthy dose of perseverance are all that's needed to make dreams come true and to achieve 'unachievable' goals (despite the use of your lazy-assed prologue, the way you insist on a back-story, and/or your damn purple prose❤).