CAUTION: BAD OPENINGS AHEAD
by Melissa Jeglinski
As an agent, I receive a lot of queries, and since I prefer that they include the first five pages of the manuscript, that means I’ve read a LOT of story openings. It’s amazing how books from different genres will often start out in the same way—but those ways are not always compelling.
Below is just a short list of openings I feel are overused and can actually work against the aim of starting the book in the most enthralling way.
Waking up from a dream/nightmare: Starting the book off with pages of italicized text that may seem exciting to you can be confusing to the reader, especially when the reader discovers the events didn’t really happen or occurred in the past. Because the dream/nightmare is not part of the moment, it can make for a disjointed read.
Getting to a destination: Many pages can be wasted forcing the reader to experience the sometimes mundane journey to a place: driving in the car, waiting for a bus, the long walk up a road to ring a doorbell. What works better is starting with the protagonist already at their destination, immersed in an exciting experience.
Standing at a gravesite: Okay, if your book is about zombies or vampires rising from the dead, this could be a great opening. Otherwise, starting the book out with a visit to the dead can be depressing. And if your book isn’t meant to be a sad/depressing read, this can set the wrong tone. There are ways to bring up someone who has passed other than having your protagonist speak to their tombstone.
Having the protagonist directly address the reader: This type of structure works only when the entire book is meant to be written in such a narrative throughout. Otherwise your protagonist is breaking that wall for just a few paragraphs, leaving readers confused about what type of experience they are in for.
Starting with a prologue: This will be controversial, I’m sure, but I personally dislike prologues. How can a reader be invested in the actions that occur in a prologue when they are not yet invested in the main character? Will a prologue really make your book more compelling or it will it only slow down the story?
Openings are tough. You want the most compelling paragraphs possible, and by avoiding the above traps, you’ll be a lot more likely to catch and keep the reader’s attention.
Agents of the Roundtable
What is one part of being an agent that you’d never have imagined before you became one?
PAMELA HARTY: I never imagined how much I would grow to deeply care about so many of my clients. It’s my favorite part of this job and so rewarding to watch them achieve their goals and be partners with them when they do.
ELAINE SPENCER: How connected you become with your clients. They become like an extension of yourself—whatever they experience, you experience too, the highs and the lows. When glowing reviews come flooding in you’re like a proud parent on awards night, or when a sales account doesn’t take the expected number of copies you’re like a mother bear protecting her cubs—ready to fight! Of course I expected that I would enjoy my clients’ projects and have solid working relationships, but over the course of the weeks and years you share so much more together that you become so much closer. I couldn’t anticipate those bonds that would form and the allegiances that would be born—ties that bind you forever, even if conditions change and you’re no longer working together for whatever reasons.
LUCIENNE DIVER: All the minutiae! I knew, of course, that I'd be evaluating and critiquing works, submitting, chasing submissions, negotiating contracts, and follow up. But the gazillions of things that need to be tracked and chased is always mind-boggling. Everything from the status of contracts, negotiations, and payments, to when statements start for each book (and when they are expected to arrive from each publisher and for each author) to which books are eligible for reversion and where we stand on various requests. Then there are the subrights and overseas submissions, sales, statements, term limits, potential renewals, tax forms, and transfers. Thank goodness for Excel files and our fabulous database. A detail-oriented, time-sensitive Type-A personality doesn't hurt either!
NEPHELE TEMPEST: I think the one thing that took me by surprise when I first started working as an agent was how writers’ conferences worked. I understood the basics—writers attend panels presented by published authors, editors, and agents—but I assumed it was always something planned out ahead. So it was a bit of a shock to find myself sitting on a panel of agents at the first conference I did, answering questions. I’d been an agent for about three months and didn’t feel at all equipped to be in the spotlight yet, plus I was a very nervous public speaker. Over the years, speaking at conferences has become a highlight of the job, but it definitely took a while for me to get used to it.
MELISSA JEGLINSKI: I never imagined that I would still be discovering new genres to read and represent. When I decided to become an agent I was very focused on romance; that’s what I read and sold. But as time went on, I started to get a wider array of submissions and found my world expanding. Who knows what other types of projects I may eventually take on!
» USA Today best-selling author Marilyn Pappano's untitled romantic suspense novel, featuring a billionaire hero and the feisty female thief who may be his undoing, to Patience Bloom at Harlequin Romantic Suspense, in a two-book deal by Melissa Jeglinski
New Clients on the Block
» Susan Meier: Website | Twitter | Facebook
» Rahaf Harfoush: Website | Twitter | Facebook
» Larissa Hardesty: Website | Twitter | Facebook
» THE WORD GAME by Steena Holmes won the 2015 USA Best Book Award for General Fiction. THE MEMORY CHILD, also by Steena Holmes, was a finalist in the same category.
» INK AND BONE by Rachel Caine and THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin made Barnes & Noble's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2015 list. THE FIFTH SEASON is also on Publisher Weekly's Best Books of 2015 list, as well as The Washington Post's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015 list.
» THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY by Genevieve Cogman was listed as one of the 10 best fantasy novels by The Independent.
» THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin made it to the final round in the fantasy category of Goodreads Choice Awards, along with Christina Henry's ALICE in the horror category. ALICE was also selected as one of Amazon’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2015.
» In a recent Q&A with readers at Goodreads, Gena Showalter discussed her latest release, THE HARDER YOU FALL; her Young Adult series, The White Rabbit Chronicles; and more.
» RT Book Reviews announced the contenders for the 2015 RT Awards, and the following nine Knight Agency authors made the list. Winners will be announced during the RT Booklovers Convention next year.
Robin D. Owens, HEART LEGACY
Nalini Singh, ARCHANGEL’S ENIGMA
Indie Press Contemporary Romance
Nalini Singh, ROCK HARD
Indie/Self-Published Paranormal/Urban Fantasy
Diana Pharaoh Francis, EDGE OF DREAMS
NK Jemisin, THE FIFTH SEASON
Nocturnes in Series Romance
Karen Whiddon, SHADES OF THE WOLF
Harlequin Special Edition
Shirley Jump, THE HOMECOMING QUEEN GETS HER MAN
Harlequin Romantic Suspense
Marilyn Pappano, BAYOU HERO
Tessa Harris, SHADOW OF THE RAVEN
Debbie Mason is the USA Today best-selling author of the Christmas, Colorado series. Her books have been praised for their "likable characters, clever dialogue and juicy plots" (RT Book Reviews). She also writes historical paranormals as Debbie Mazzuca. When she isn't writing or reading, Debbie enjoys spending time with her very own real-life hero, along with their four wonderful children, two adorable grandbabies, and a yappy Yorkie named Bella.
TKA: Is Christmas, Colorado based on a real place and how did you come up with the idea for the setting?
Debbie: I like to set my books in places I've either been to or want to visit, and while Colorado was definitely at the top of my must-visit list, it was actually one of my daughters who inspired me to set the series there. Since she was little, she's dreamed of spending Christmas in Aspen. But Aspen, while gorgeous, is a little too ritzy for the town I envisioned.
Instead, after some research, I loosely based the town of Christmas on Breckenridge. Not only because it's a nature-lover's dream and looks like it belongs in a snow globe, but for its history. Breckenridge was established in 1859 during the Colorado gold rush, which fit perfectly with my backstory of how the Danes, O'Connors, and McBrides founded Christmas.
TKA: How many personal experiences and observations are reflected in the Christmas, Colorado series?
Debbie: The series was born out of my love for Christmas—the holiday—and small towns. Although, admittedly, Christmas is an idealized version of the small town I grew up in. But there's a little bit of me in every book. Sometimes in a character's backstory, their flaws, their worldview, observations and situations.
In the first book in the series, THE TROUBLE WITH CHRISTMAS, the heroine's father was an abusive alcoholic, and so was mine. When I was nine, my parents divorced and my mother married the man who became the father of my heart. He's the reason I can write about heroes and white knights and happily ever afters. And the reason the overarching theme of the series is family; that good things can come out of bad situations.
TKA: SNOWBOUND AT CHRISTMAS is the fifth in the series. Out of all of them, do you have favorite or two?
Debbie: There's something special about each story and its characters, at least for me there is, so it's difficult to pick a favorite. But if I had to, I'd say the book I'm working on now.
TKA: Do you have a favorite character in the series? Are there any who've been especially challenging to create?
Debbie: That's like asking if I have a favorite child or family member. So I'll go with the story people I'm invested in right now, the character(s) in my current WIP.
As far as challenging characters: No, not really. It's been more of a challenge to make sure reoccurring characters stay true to who they are in each book and retain their individual voices.
TKA: What changes have you seen in the romance market since you were first published? Do you find it more challenging then when you began your career?
Debbie: Digital and self-publishing have exploded since my first book, LORD OF THE ISLES, was published in 2010. And while the changes have created more opportunities for authors to get their books in front of readers and interact with them, they've also added another layer of challenges for writers. At least for me they have.
There's added pressure to write more books. Instead of writing one to two books a year, I'm now writing three to four. Which wouldn't be such a big deal if that's all we had to do. But when you add in marketing, publicity, and establishing a strong presence on social media, it can be a bit overwhelming. Especially if you're an introvert. So my biggest challenges are trying to protect my writing time and creativity. And I don't think I'm alone.
TKA: Finally, could you tell us a bit about your upcoming February release, KISS ME IN CHRISTMAS?
Debbie: KISS ME IN CHRISTMAS is Chloe O'Connor and Easton McBride's book. Chloe is a soap opera star and Cat's identical twin. Cat's the heroine in SNOWBOUND—a book Chloe created her share of trouble in. So much so that I've received more reader email about Chloe than any other character in the series. And it's not fan mail. Ha-ha! But on a positive note, they also want to read her story. Probably to see how I redeem her. Either that, or they want more of Easton. He's returned home to Christmas after an injury ended his military career.
Here's a snippet from their "first meet" in Kiss Me. Chloe's flown in from California for her sister's engagement party. Cat's engaged to Special Agent Grayson Alexander, the hero from Snowbound. A man Chloe believes her sister stole from her. Chloe's last thought in the snippet gives you a hint of what's to come.
"She'd need a little liquid courage to face Easton. He despised her and didn't care who knew it, including her. And yes, he may have had good reason to feel that way fifteen years ago. But my goodness, it was such a long time to hold a grudge. She wrinkled her nose as she lifted the flask to her mouth.
The front door opened. It was Easton. And like every single time she saw his outrageously handsome face, her heart pitter-pattered in her chest and the theme song from The Princess Bride started playing in her head. It was silly. And she wished she could turn off the soundtrack in her mind. But it had been playing there since she was fifteen and Easton saved her from the schoolyard bullies. He'd been her hero from that moment on. Her white knight. She'd thought he was her one until he became her sister's. He'd loved Cat. They'd probably be . . . Chloe's eyes widened . . . married now if it weren't for her.
"Little early to be drinking, isn't it, Scarlett?""~Kiss Me in Christmas
Visit Debbie's official website, follow her on Twitter, and join her fans on Facebook.
Author Tip of the Month
Shirlee McCoy is the author of Inspirational Romance novels, including the upcoming DEADLY CHRISTMAS SECRETS
Shirlee's tip: Writing success is as much about consistency and persistence as it is about talent. I’ve spoken to many aspiring authors, and the one piece of advice I always give is this: set writing goals and meet them. If you really want to be a writer, make time to write. Build it into your schedule. Make it a priority. Decide how much time you can devote to writing. Jot that down and use it to build realistic daily, weekly and monthly word count goals. Meet these goals consistently. When you’ve completed the manuscript, submit it and repeat the process again and again.
Don’t be afraid of rejection. Expect it. View each manuscript as an experiment in learning. While it is true that the goal is publication, writing should also be about producing the best story that you can. With that in mind, be critical of your work, be honest with yourself about it and always work toward the goal of making your next manuscript better than your last one.
To learn more about Shirlee, visit her official website.