It’s Writer Wednesday, let’s talk about writerly things!
Back in 2013, thewritelife.com posted an article about “The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice From Literary Agents.” And excerpts of it have most likely been making the rounds on tumblr ever since. The post that crossed my dash had over 30,000 notes. I reblogged it with a few I felt were relevant to my own feelings. Before you read, remember, agents are human beings with tastes, preferences and biases like everyone else. They’re expressing an opinion not a fact. The problem with an agent’s opinion is that they hold a modest amount of power over writers who want to be traditionally published. (Problem 2, they often express their opinions as facts.)
One of the quotes is by Kristen Nelson of Nelson Literary about how the worst way fantasy novels is that they open up in the middle of action scenes (or people gathering herbs.) And her preference, directly contradicts the old adage advice of opening up in the middle of the story (and in science fiction and fantasy, that’s usually some sort of action scene unless it’s leaning towards the heavily political.) And Peter Miller of PMA Literary and Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary don’t want you to open with lengthy exposition and description. These are contradictory pieces of advice in the same article. (Because what else is there?)
All writing advice from agents ends up being like this. Contradictory. Changes quickly and mostly negative. Agents very rarely use the internet platform as a message board for what they really want in a story. (They are overloaded with queries already, why solicit more? I mean, if they posted their preferences more clearly and not “the next Tolkien or GRR Martin, they might actually get something suited to their taste.) It becomes easy to be blown about in every direction from every piece of advice you read and soon as a writer, you might have six drafts of your story and be so overwhelmed and befuddled not knowing which one is the best. Because you’ve lost your best temperature gauge when it comes to your writing, your own gut and instincts. The head becomes so filled with “professional” advice and self doubt about living up to that advice it drowns out your own voice!
(Really, read the bios of some of these agents. Most of them don’t have English Degrees or come from any sort of storytelling background. Their advice is that, opinions and advice. They just happen to have industry contacts that an aspiring writer who wants to be published needs. There are no qualifications for writing a good novel and sometimes you have to wonder if there are any qualifications for being a good literary agent.)
So, when it comes to the best writing for your story, it all really comes down to how much do you trust yourself as a writer?
Your writing style and voice is unique. It’s an expression of your inner self and it can’t be forced and shouldn’t be pushed to bend to fit some sort of “this is what is selling right this minute” box.
I’m not talking about bad writing such as purple prose, lack of any grammar skills, the inability to use spell check, lack of story structure and conflict and have flat characters. Because there are stories that are technically bad. There is no way around it. And it’s sad. Not all of them can be edited to greatness either. Though enough of those still manage to get professional published through the big houses.
I’m talking about writing that is an expression of your creative process, thoughts and comes naturally to you without reaching for a dictionary or a thesaurus. Where the characters come to life on the page and the story has tension and questions to answer and is legible. (House of Leaves notwithstanding, legible is important.) The type of story that sucks you in and makes you want to curl up with it until it’s done. And I don’t really care about the genre, I’ve read just about everything at least once. A good mystery or romance novel can keep me just as enthralled as my favorite fantasy or science fiction novel.
I’m afraid that Kristen Nelson and I are never going to get along, because she doesn’t post publicly on her website where it is easily found that she dislikes speculative fiction books that open with action scenes. Both of my books open with action scenes. Why? Because I’m an action adventure writer. Let’s get this out of the way. You open my book, you read the first chapter, you know what you’re getting into, fighting, explosions, people making hopefully funny quips.
I had to rely on my instincts when choosing the first paragraph for the Lone Prospect. Where was I going to begin this story? In the first draft of the Lone Prospect, chapter two was actually the first chapter, and chapter one was, oh, a third to halfway through the story? A third I think. I’d written the story chronologically. But was that really the best way to draw in the reader?
Here is the first paragraph of Chapter Two:
Brand leaned closer to the table. His nose almost hit the glowing green projection that rose from the table’s surface. The motion made his black leather vest, covered in patches and a few studs and pins, gape open. His dark brown hair fell across his face and was slightly gray at the temples, feathered at the ends. His two-day growth of beard on his square jaw was going gray too.
Really, it’s not very grabby. It didn’t feel grabby to me as a writer or as a reader. It’s mostly description, that tired old exposition and prose. Hey, we know Brand is older, he’s wearing leather and has longer hair so he’s probably some sort of rebel type. Oh, and there is some sort of green projection over a table. What’s that about?
And here is the first paragraph of current Chapter One:
Pande-fucking-monium. Gideon jumped into the air over the chaos. Rockets built into his armor kept him above it all. Soldiers shouted and waved their arms. The back of Gideon’s head still echoed from explosions. Music, like a psychotic backdrop, blared out of the enemy camp’s speakers from Blake’s earlier hack. Conflicting smells of gunpowder, chemicals, animals, and the smell of humans living together in packed quarters overwhelmed his nose. And ahead of Gideon, an enemy soldier pulled a truck into the middle of his flight path.
Hey, not only do I drop you into the middle of a fight, there’s more description. But in this paragraph, we’ve got some more questions, why is Gideon flying in the air with rockets in his armor? Who is Blake? Why is Gideon’s nose so sensitive? It’s more likely to grab the reader’s attention for more than one reason.
The opening paragraph of The Lone Prospect is a deliberate homage to one of my favorite science fiction novels, Starship Troopers. By making this homage to Starship Troopers, the reader may or not pick up on it, but it will feel familiar to them if they like old school science fiction. It will feel familiar and they’ll, hopefully, be more likely to pick up and read the book because of that familiarity. “Hey, maybe this is like Starship Troopers.”
It’s also a shout out the Expendables movie that also opens up in the middle of a mercenary job.
Maybe Kristen Nelson doesn’t like Starship Troopers. (No idea.)
I can’t afford fancy editors. I don’t have a lot of friends who enjoy science fantasy or reading for that matter that I would entrust with a book to go “hey, this is good.” I have myself, my decades of reading experience and another decade of writing experience writing character driven, action adventure, romantic comedies. That’s it. I have no choice but to trust my gut and my instincts.
My guts and instincts are still my biases, opinions, preferences and likes. Just like an agent. Unlike an agent though, I have complete control over my work. I have complete control to say whether or not changing the opening scene is really the best way to go or not. I have complete control to reject or accept advice depending on how it fits the story, tone, mood and message of what I’m writing. It took a lot of time for me to build those skills and those instincts to find a story with a message that I truly wanted to tell. I abandon those instincts at my peril. Abandoning them can make me paralyzed with fear and when you are paralyzed with fear you don’t write and nothing gets done.
All an agent can do is tell me, “No. I’m not going to represent this book to my publishing contacts.” And I can then go, “Then you aren’t the agent for me. Thank you for your time.” If another person doesn’t understand your writing, then they don’t deserve you. It’s time to move on, politely, especially if all they gave you was an “I’m not excited about this concept and I’m going to pass,” as a response. (This is the standard agent rejection outside of silence.)
I don’t appreciate it when agents put out blanket statements that tell me that they aren’t willing to give an entire story a chance if the writing (such as the style, prose, grammar and concept) are good over something that’s pretty standard in the genre. It’s easy to tell someone “this is wrong, this is a problem” when it’s something concrete, like bad grammar, purple prose, the story is too long to fit spec. But when it’s an opinion like “I don’t like stories that open with action sequences, thus, it’s wrong and the worst way to open a story.” They take an opinion and make it fact and then dismiss everything under that umbrella. It’s much more difficult to give advice that is more along the lines of “in my opinion, I’d like to see more of…” or even making a positive comment about the concept or the writing or the voice of the story. It’s easy to tear something down. It’s hard to build something up.
There’s a mode of thought that you have to tear something down in order to rebuild it. That’s all well and good if you’ve joined the military. Here is my experience, that most of the time people go ahead and do the tearing down and completely forget about the building back up. That’s what that article was about. It was all tearing down. It was about stating opinions as facts. There wasn’t any building up. It would have been a better, more balanced, article that would have made me rant a little less if it was the “worst and best” ways to open your story. That way, a writer can compare the opinions about best and worst and test their own instincts and opinions. (Or at least find an agent that their writing might actually appeal to.)
Look, I have been on the end of the constant tearing down. I’ve been to art school. I’ve sat through the critiques. I’ve bit my tongue and swallowed the misery of being torn apart on something that the school never taught me. A five minute demo about markers doesn’t really count as teaching. (And there wasn’t anything available in the major specifically for what we were doing at that time. These were supposed to be FAST illustrations. They instituted a class later, I took it and felt like I got worse.) As a result, I know I’m a decent designer. I’m not expressly innovative, but I design clothes that people would most likely wear. I can do a line drawing. I can do technical flats. My coloring skills to me, look and feel like shit. I don’t bother coloring my fashion design drawings anymore because I can’t get them to look the way I want them to look. I’m doing it for fun. Fun shouldn’t be frustrating.
Maybe if someone had said to me, “Hey, Ginny, it’s okay to have flat color. Maybe that’s your style.” Or. “It’s okay to have thick colored pencil outlines. Those are strong enough on their own.” Then, maybe, maybe, I’d trust myself on my drawings. My instincts wouldn’t be so messed up on my coloring skills. Because I can do simple shading. Not always good on light source, but I can do shading. Rendering patterns and different fabrics, not really, but I can SHADE. I don’t trust myself to do so anymore.
And that’s what happens when you constantly tear someone down without supporting them in other ways and building them back up.
Your instincts and gut as a writer are there for a reason. Listen to them. The more experience you have in reading and writing and your own preferences when it comes to writing and knowledge of your writing style, the stronger and better your gut and instincts will be to push back against “this is a horrible way to write” that is stated like fact instead of opinion.
Of course, this is coming from someone with about 15 dollars worth of sales. Take from it what you will.