Agents: The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel

Gonk the Insane

A.J. Grimmelhaus
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Interesting stuff. I know there have been discussions about it before but I was particularly interested in the number of agents who had strong feelings about prologues, which seemed to be along the lines of "NOOOOOO! Don't ever do it!". I'd kind of thought the general consensus was prologues are okay if they serve a pupose but a few agents would inevitably be put off by them. From the article it seems like the inclusion of a prologue could immediately give you a short cut to the slush pile. There are plenty of other intesting bits of advice in there too.
 

Edward M. Grant

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I'd kind of thought the general consensus was prologues are okay if they serve a pupose but a few agents would inevitably be put off by them.
If they serve a purpose, they should probably be Chapter One.

I suspect the big problem with prologues in unpublished novels by unknown writers is that so many aren't needed, and deal with characters and events that will never appear in the story again, that including one is likely to indicate there'll be a lot more issues with the book than just the prologue. I know I've critiqued unpublished novels with prologues that made me want to throw the text file across the room; particularly the ones that set up interesting characters, got me invested in them, and made me think I was reading that character's story... then those characters never appeared again.

Then there are the tedious thirty-page infodump prologues that are followed by an interesting chapter one that I only reached because I skipped over the prologue to see if the book ever got any better.
 

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Interesting stuff. I know there have been discussions about it before but I was particularly interested in the number of agents who had strong feelings about prologues, which seemed to be along the lines of "NOOOOOO! Don't ever do it!". I'd kind of thought the general consensus was prologues are okay if they serve a pupose but a few agents would inevitably be put off by them. From the article it seems like the inclusion of a prologue could immediately give you a short cut to the slush pile. There are plenty of other intesting bits of advice in there too.
To be honest, agents and editors are overwhelmed with submissions. They're looking for anything to excuse their round filing of manuscripts. Maybe it's not fair, but after being a slush reader and editor myself, I can say that I've seen perhaps two prologues that were necessary. And those were both in professionally published books. I've never seen a single prologue in a submission that was necessary or engaging.

Again, honestly...

If they serve a purpose, they should probably be Chapter One...

Then there are the tedious thirty-page infodump prologues that are followed by an interesting chapter one that I only reached because I skipped over the prologue to see if the book ever got any better.
These are exactly right.

One of the two prologues I've read that actually worked was from GRRM's Game of Thrones. And it only works because it's instantly engaging, sets up a mystery (that's continued in the rest of the book and is important to the series as a whole), and is written as a proper scene. But note there's no reason to call that bit of writing a 'prologue' instead of 'chapter one', except that the rest of the book uses POV character names as chapter titles and the POV character in that prologue never appears again... unless that character's name was Prologue... hmm.
 

MWagner

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My WIP has a prologue that functions like the one in Game of Thrones. A key incident happens to kick off the main plot. None of the POV characters are present. The scene is dramatic in itself, and provides some key information about the setting and the people in it (through dialogue, not info-dumps). And the incident is a shocking crime that I feel has more impact portrayed on-screen.

I could call it Chapter 1. But it does not feature characters who appear in the novel again.
 

Brian G Turner

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On the issue of prologues: I took a tip from Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold - in which the prologue doesn't say "Prologue" but instead has a proper chapter title...

And, of course, is not an infodump, but a character-driven scene about people we'll see through the book...
 

Randy M.

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A small, even whispered note of caution: There are readers, maybe especially those with a passion for 18th and 19th century novels and all since written imitations thereof, who love prologues. Also dedications, quotes, epilogues, afterwards, introductions, and all the other baggage and accoutrements novels have accumulated in their brief history.

Prologues are no different from other elements of a written work: If you need it, create it, but whatever you write needs to accomplish something.


Randy M.
 

chrispenycate

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Hmm. I think I'm beginning to see why it's becoming steadily more difficult to find books I enjoy reading - Literary agents and publishers are filtering them out as unfashionable. Anything requiring more than a five-minute attention span (except already established authors) is to be slashed and preferably burnt - oh, there are only a few aging dinosaurs who like a solidly built foundation; everybody else expects the house to be built from the chimneys down.

I have stopped reading several books that tipped me straight into the action, as recommended in one of these guides, and taken them back to the library after one chapter. I have loved CJ Cherryh books that have had a complete chapter, or even more, of worldbuilding and character establishment before any action, so we are installed comfortably in the special environment with time to fasten our seatbelts before being shaken up violently.
 

AnyaKimlin

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I'm pleased to read your post Chispy ;) As I am weighing up a chapter like this. I think the situation at the park is a great introduction to a story but it isn't fashionable to begin that way.

Hmm. I think I'm beginning to see why it's becoming steadily more difficult to find books I enjoy reading - Literary agents and publishers are filtering them out as unfashionable. Anything requiring more than a five-minute attention span (except already established authors) is to be slashed and preferably burnt - oh, there are only a few aging dinosaurs who like a solidly built foundation; everybody else expects the house to be built from the chimneys down.

I have stopped reading several books that tipped me straight into the action, as recommended in one of these guides, and taken them back to the library after one chapter. I have loved CJ Cherryh books that have had a complete chapter, or even more, of worldbuilding and character establishment before any action, so we are installed comfortably in the special environment with time to fasten our seatbelts before being shaken up violently.
 

MWagner

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Hmm. I think I'm beginning to see why it's becoming steadily more difficult to find books I enjoy reading - Literary agents and publishers are filtering them out as unfashionable. Anything requiring more than a five-minute attention span (except already established authors) is to be slashed and preferably burnt - oh, there are only a few aging dinosaurs who like a solidly built foundation; everybody else expects the house to be built from the chimneys down.

I have stopped reading several books that tipped me straight into the action, as recommended in one of these guides, and taken them back to the library after one chapter. I have loved CJ Cherryh books that have had a complete chapter, or even more, of worldbuilding and character establishment before any action, so we are installed comfortably in the special environment with time to fasten our seatbelts before being shaken up violently.
I've begun to wonder if the publishing industry isn't heading down a blind alley by trying to be more like movies and other instant media, when those other forms of media will always do immediacy and relentless action better than novels.
 

Wruter

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I've begun to wonder if the publishing industry isn't heading down a blind alley by trying to be more like movies and other instant media, when those other forms of media will always do immediacy and relentless action better than novels.
Exactly. Novels are the closest thing we have to telepathy.
 
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Literary agents share some of the worst openings for a novel:
“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.”
Cricket Freeman

Ouch. You've got to love it when you hit the first mine in the minefield . . .

Thanks for sharing the article : )
 

Michael M

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The main problem with opening chapters is you need to demonstrate the key themes and set the tone for the rest of the work. If you write an opening chapter in a different style or genre to the rest of the novel, you will alienate the agent drawn to your opening chapter, and fail to generate interest from agents who might be willing to consider the overall genre and style of the novel, but are not keen on what they read in the opening chapter.

Sadly, if you want to be considered for publication you need to adapt to the demands of the industry - or be James Joyce.
 

Brian G Turner

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Sadly, if you want to be considered for publication you need to adapt to the demands of the industry
Even then it might not be enough - my research into US agents gives the impression they are primarily looking for something to match their personal reading tastes, rather than looking first at the market.

A couple of months ago I entered a Twitter pitch, and an editor at a major US publisher showed interest in my manuscript. but couldn't accept a submission except through an agent. Guess how many US agents saw that Tweet and followed up on that interest? One. And they declined after a partial.

Then again, I'm writing epic fantasy, which US agents don't appear to have much interest in. Brian McClellan's the only epic fantasy debut writer I know of - so far - who has picked up by a US agent without an offer already on the table.

Which is mad when you think how much George R R Martin completely dominates sales in the fantasy genre, let alone Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderon, Peter V Brett, Joe Abercrombie, etc.

There are British agents, of course - but there are very few who solicit SF/F.

Sorry, I'm ranting. :)
 
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BigBadBob141

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It was a dark and stormy night!!!
Or I suppose you could always start one with a clock striking thirteen.
How about "Call me Fishmeal".
Or "It was the best of Tim's, it was the worst of Tim's".
 
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Joshua Jones

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Good article; thanks for sharing. The one that surprised me was the "strange man in the bedroom which the protagonist finds attractive in Romance," bit. I don't read romance novels, but do any women actually fantasize about something like that? It has a stalker, attacker vibe all over it. And, I don't think it is even a gendered thing. If I were to wake up to a strange woman standing in my bedroom, setting aside the fact that my wife would likely be in the process of stabbing her with a large knife and/or calling the police (and possibly stabbing me if she thought I was responsible for her being there), my first thought would be that she is stealing my wallet and valuables, so I would be thinking about detaining her until the police arrived.

I could be wrong (I am a guy, after all), but I would think a far better romance opening would be a protagonist accidently falling asleep on the beach or something while on holiday and waking up to said gentleman of Greek god physique and notable lack of clothing apart from swim trunks. It has the eye candy, moment of vulnerability, and most importantly, no felonies committed in the process. If you want to do rom-com with it, he could point out that she was snoring, or she fell out of her top, or something else awkward or embarrassing. But uninvited presence in an intimate area like a bedroom is little more than a female endorsement, if not encouragement, of rape culture.
 

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Wasn't there a scene in Twilight or its sequel(s) of exactly that nature? The bedroom one, not the Greek God on the beach.

But yes, I'd wager that there are still a lot of women who harbour such fantasies, but that's all they are, fantasies, not something they'd actually want to happen in real life. For most, anyway. (And yes, some women do have fantasies of rape, or at least of ravishment.)
 
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