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Monday, April 26, 2010

Literary Agent Advice & What are Rules For?

The Guide to Literary Agents posted a column of Chapter 1 mistakes most lit agents would prefer writers avoid. As a learner, I think this is all pretty useful advice. A lot of our favorites turn up, such as the agent who shares:

"I dislike opening scenes that you think are real (I rep adult genre fiction), then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.  And so many writers use this hackneyed device. I dislike lengthy paragraphs of world building and scene setting up front.  I usually crave action close to the beginning of the book (and so do readers)."
        - Laurie McLean, Larsen/Pomada Literary Agents

That absolutely has to be true. I can tell this as a reader-- not opening with a dream sequence seems like a good rule. Actually, that's the problem with these lists. They're all good and the advice is all useful. But somehow I wish they all came with a caveat like "everything here is a rule of thumb."

Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management (like Laurie McLean above) nicely couches her own advice in what has to be the best possible formulation, that this is about how she reacts: "I do in fact hate it when someone wakes up from a dream in Chapter 1, and I dislike an overly long prologue.  The worst thing that you can do is let that crucial chapter be boring - that’s the chapter that has to grab my interest!" 

You know what that rule is good for? It gives you some decent advice about opening chapters, but also tells you what Michelle Brower doesn't like, which is probably more important if you're showing something to her. 

The prologue question haunts me, though I'm not sure why. I don't actually use prologues myself, or haven't yet in a novel. And everyone can sort of nod and roll their eyes at poor examples of prologues. And yet this is one of the most well-broken rules in books. Harry Potter 1 opens with a prologue; I wouldn't cut it for the world. Every Alex Rider novel opens with the bad guys doing something somewhere to set up the plot. Almost every one (if not every one) of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt(R) novels opens with a historical prologue that presents the particular Maltese Falcon that Pitt will be chasing for this adventure. I can just imagine someone saying, "You know, Clive, how about we open with Pitt in an action scene, and we sprinkle in the stuff about the shipwreck later." I guess we could. I would. But Cussler doesn't, and that serves him well.

All of the advice you read is good. If you take your own work and run it through the advice you read, you'll likely catch a lot of issues. 

But here's the emotional kernel at the heart of these lists that I think needs to be said. These lists of rules and advice are not a magical formula that will protect your work. Following all the rules will not stave away rejection any more than it will stave away boredom. These are not completely unrelated-- a writer who seems to know no rules of writing whatever very likely will product poor work. But following these conventions-- and that's all they are; there's no actual God of No Prologues-- will still not guarantee that our work is good. There is no protection against needing to do more work, or needing to abandon the project entirely. Don't Open with a Dream Sequence is no talisman against rejection.

I read a lot of writing on writing and prefer the nuts and bolts kind; my favorite is Stephen King's On Writing, and I love The Writer's Journey. For grammar I still prefer The Elements of Style. But the advice we read that is more about selling our work is usually more a report of what the agent or editor is tired of, and I tend to find reading it all makes me weary because I can hear their weariness. Your best talisman against that is work that makes them wake up, and the rest is noise.

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