Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dos and Don'ts

I came across this: List of reasons why an agent wouldn't read past page 1.

I have to say, some of these make sense, because they hinders a reader from being interested in reading more. E.g. "the opening scene is boring" (which is subjective, of course) or "not enough happening on page 1."

On the other hand, writing is also not a "paint by number" type of endeavor. A lot of these "dos and don'ts" read like some agent's gripe list because of things amateur writers do way too often, such as the "and I wake up from a dream" or "I look into the mirror" even when they make sense. Still, a lot of this is more scare tactic than anything real. I'm sure an agent is not going to stop reading just because someone begins the novel with "My name is _____" especially if the rest of the chapter/novel is great.

Also, I sense that there's a genre bias there, too. There seems to be a general sense of "you must start with plenty of conflicts and interesting things happening." Well, while it's a good advice, it's also not always true, especially for literary fiction. Certainly you don't want to spend the first 50 pages talking about the setting or having your characters running around doing nothing (on the other hand, successful writers have been known to do that. Take John Grisham's A Painted House, for example. Then again, he's a well-known author so he can do anything he wants). But advice such as "don't open your novel with dialogue" seems overreacting and paranoid.

I particularly like this one: "An adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often assumed to be YA."   Are you serious?  If the book opens with teenage protagonist, it is ASSUMED to be YA?  Are the agents stupid or just have a general lack of imagination? So, if the protags in the first scene is a kid, it must be a children's book?  A Kite Runner and The Secret Life of Bees are children's and YA respectively then.  What about To Kill a Mockingbird?

My point is, while these lists serve a purpose to warn us, to prevent us from making these "newbie" mistakes, they also must be taken with a grain of salt. There are also contradictions, for example:  "Takes too long to show us what happened" and "the details are not enough."  Hard to please, aren't they?  And my point is, this whole thing is subjective. For one person who believes Stephanie Meyer can't write (and she probably won't make it according to this list), there are many people who would read a phone book if she wrote it.

Also, remember, what doesn't work for one agent may work for another. No two agents have exactly the same taste or the same hangups. One may send your sample chapters to the trash upon reading "My name is Amy Henson," and another may continue to read until page 15 when she says, "OMG, I've got to have this."

The point is, do your best work and try to tell a damn good story the best way you can. You can't please everyone and you shouldn't even try. But if you're telling an AWESOME story in an awesome way, so what if it starts with "My name is...."?

Call me Ismail.

4 comments:

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I'm glad you mentioned the age of a character NOT determining the genre. I've had several people question if my novel should be YA because one of the POVs is a 17yo. Sure, it could be written that way, but really anything could, and I chose to write this as women's fiction.

Ray Wong said...

My two protags started out as teenagers, but no way is my novel YA. I really do think people who say "oh, it must be YA since the character is 16" lack significant imagination or experience as a reader, and I wouldn't trust them as agents.

Shannon said...

Amen. I saw this list, too, and although it was interesting to read it, I couldn't help but think that if I followed every bit of advice I read on lists like this, I'd never get a thing written at all. The age/genre thing was particularly odd and I can tell you that as a reader, I would not be put off by a story beginning with "My name is..."

Ray Wong said...

I read a perfectly great rebuttal from a writer... what if the book opens with:

"My name is Emily, but I can't tell you my last name, because if I do, I'll be dead within 2 minutes."

I bet you'll want to read on...