Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, February 25, 2008

So Begins Today's Blog Post

At the San Francisco Writer's Conference I participated on a fiction agents' panel with many wonderful agents, and it was a pretty great hour. One of the audience members asked to hear our personal pet peeves when it comes to queries, and you could almost feel the excitement among the agents on the panel, as this is without a doubt one of our favorite topics. Who doesn't like complain about their pet peeves?

Anyway, after I had expressed my irrational and yet passionate disdain for queries beginning with rhetorical questions, the incomparable and awesome Donald Maass had, I thought, a pretty superb query peeve as well, and now that he mentioned it I can't help but trip up on it every time. And that is: a query that begins with a quote from the first lines of the novel, followed by the words "So begins my xxx novel..."

The man is a genius! I definitely understand why people would want to put their best foot forward and just cut to the chase with their writing. But there's something about the whole setup of quote followed by "So begins my..." that can't help but feel a little canned. Not to mention the fact that while it's possible to have a really awesome first line, the excerpt itself isn't enough to really give a sense of the novel, which is why the whole query thing exists in the first place.

Now, if you have employed this setup, do not feel bad! You couldn't have known that it was such a common trope, and no agent is going to reject you solely on the basis of using this opening. But just be aware that this is a very common setup, and when you're trying to stand out from the query pack, it doesn't usually pay to be common.

So ends today's post.






44 comments:

Jessica said...

I can't help but think of high school English class, where we were encouraged to open essays with a quotation, a definition, or a rhetorical question. Fine for a high school essay, but just seems like a waste of space for a query letter.

Sam Hranac said...

Trope

I have a new favorite word for the week. Thank you.

Ryan Field said...

Couldn't agree with you more about this.

benwah said...

I don't mind the idea of using a quote so much, but the "So begins my masterpiece" seems redundant and a tad pretentious. Not to mention reminiscent of Monty Burns' style of writing.

Adaora A. said...

I've never even thought to begin a query letter with my opening line, and follow with saying that's how my novel begins. But it looks like you've tamped that town before it even had the opportunity to bubble up. I see what you're doing with your blog, it's good work.

Totally OT but I'll dive anyways:

Does everyone know of the commercial Apple did when they first introduced their computer into the - at the time - mostly IBM dominated market in 1984? Perhaps Nathan, you should do a big brother commerical. Being an apple computer owner and all, it would help you go full circle:

http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=OYecfV3ubP8

Barbara said...

"Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a rhetorical question?" So begins my 250,000 word fiction novel...

Katie said...

Here I go with another "What about _____?" question!

Are you saying this about all quotes, or the "Thus begins" type only?

ie: What if the quote is a prophecy that is relevent to the whole book? (I've been toying with starting my query out with it. I wouldn't dream of doing it in the query for my other books, but it seems to somehow "fit" this fantasy query.)

Josephine Damian said...

"Heidi?" "No, Spencer, you idiot, it's Audrina." What happens when a guy named Spencer foolishly hits the wrong speed-dial button on his home-boy phone and gets Audrina on the line when who he really wanted to talk was Heidi? So begins my highly fictionalized novelization of "The Hill's Spill's."

Couldn't resist combining Nathan and Donald's pet peeves. Speaking of Donald Maass.... I also read that in querying a thriller, in referring to the main character, he HATES the phrase "haunted by a dark past."

If anbody wants to read a summation of my one-day workshop with Donald Maass, here's the link to part 1:

http://josephinedamian.blogspot.com/2008/01/donald-maass-chronicles-part-1-or-does.html

Here's the part 2 link:

http://josephinedamian.blogspot.com/2008/02/donald-chronicles-part-2-or-what-does.html

Nathan, did you see Cormac McCarthy at the Oscars last night? I was nice that he brought his kid along with him...

Nathan Bransford said...

katie-

I wouldn't proscribe all quotes-from-novels at the beginning of query letters, although I will say that there's an extremely high degree of difficulty in having quotes in the beginning because pulling quotes out of context isn't often the most effective display of one's writing. It's usually preferable to just focus on the overview and show your writing through the query letter, but as with anything else, a quote in the beginning can be done well.

Tiffany Kenzie said...

Dang! Okay I'm guilty of using a line from my book. But it's not the first line. And I don't open it that way, I just state the line, and go into the teaser... Let me guess... that's just as bad isn't it?

And here I was thinking I had the ultimate opening to my query... lol!

Tiffany Kenzie said...

And while I was typing you answered.

Back to the query... sigh...

Katie Alender said...

I think you should have a "worst rhetorical question" contest.

So begins--nay, ends!--my comment.

Anonymous said...

stupid question of the hour:

When asked to submit your full, do you include your dedication, author's notes, thank yous?

(ducking)

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Not a stupid question -- I wouldn't include those unless the dedication adds something meaningful to the actual work, and there will be plenty of time once you have a publisher to add them in.

Not to mention you don't yet know which agent to shower with praise!

Anonymous said...

thanks for the answer!

How about a table of contents, is that necessary too or can it wait?

thanks also for not snarking.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I'd also hold off on a table of contents, unless it's part of a nonfiction book proposal or something like that, where it's important to give a sense of what will be in the book.

Anonymous said...

thanks

showering you with praise for being so nice too

Adaora A. said...

This might be a silly question:

When you're reading a full, do you cringe, feel indifferent, or hate when every chapter has a title to it?

I've always been curious about that.

Nathan Bransford said...

adaora-

Mostly indifferent. It's one of those things where if it works it works.

Just_Me said...

Another question Nathan-

How do you feel about page breaks instead of full chapter breaks? I've seen published books written without chapter breaks and they work, but I don't know if the author queried that way or not.

And when would you introduce the idea of wanting to use a pen name with an agent? When you first query or later down the road?

Thank you!

benwah said...

Nathan, what do you think about quotes in synopses? I've dropped in a few, mostly because I use a great deal of dialogue, and I'm trying to get that point across (with something less blunt than a shovel).

Nathan Bransford said...

just me-

I prefer page breaks after chapters, but that's just me. I think it creates a mental break.

And a pen name could be discussed at any time -- situations vary, and pen names can actually be a bit of a pain for some authors, but for others it works well.

Nathan Bransford said...

benwah-

I've seen effective synopses that have quotes, and effective synopses that don't. It's not essential though, and I'll go with my fallback "if it works it works" on that one.

benwah said...

Thanks. I'm fond of the "if it works, keep it" approach to things. Deluged with queries post conference yet?

Nathan Bransford said...

benwah-

It's actually been a pretty steady torrent since the beginning of the year.

Adaora A. said...

Thank you Nathan.

You're the MVP or er MVB*

*B is for Blogger!

Anonymous said...

Well >phew<

At least that won't be the reason for my rejection. Keep these great tidbits coming. It gives us a few more things to eliminate when we're trying to figure out why we didn't make the cut.

Other Lisa said...

OT, but interesting article on e slush piles in Publisher's Weekly.

A Paperback Writer said...

Ah, it's so nice to feel smug when I read your post and find I am NOT GUILTY of some query crime. I despise rhetorical questions and won't let my students use them on essays, and I would NEVER give a cheesy opening like "So begins...." It sounds like a talk given at church: didactic. Yuck.
Okay, I feel good about myself now. Thanks, Nathan

A Paperback Writer said...

anonymous, I'm impressed that you've even THOUGHT about a dedication when your book's still in ms form. Wow.

Furious D said...

I was going to give you the opening quote is a rhetorical question gag, but someone beat me to it.




;)

Anonymous said...

Nathan
You're the kind of agent who can give a powerhouse agent like Don Maass a run for his money. Keep up the fantastic work.

Anonymous said...

a paperback writer...
you assume...???

But even if in ms form,
some things are inspired by others,
and the work, even if never published out loud, is grateful enough to prepare to take a private if not a public bow.
Dedications, like thank yous,
are always in order,
at least to keep in my mind.

Ulysses said...

For a change of pace, I've decided to start my query with a rhetorical answer.

Kathryn Harris said...

Pet peeves of literary agents? I would guess, after reading the blogs of several agents, there are plenty out there. So many, in fact, someone could write a book.

mlh said...

Thanks for the info, Nathan. It's a pleasure to look into the mind of an agent -- in a non-surgical way.

Darn, I missed the question/answer session last night. But maybe I can still sneak in one for your morning coffee.

I've already finished my query, and I'm glad I didn't start it out with a quote or question. What has me worried is the length.

I basically summed it up in a three-sentece paragraph (this doesn't include the title or genre, but it's in the letter). I'm wondering if that's too short? Do I need to add more content or stick with the main plot and not add any secondary elements? I'm fighting with myself over wanting to add more, then banging my head against the wall thinking that this would be too much at one time.

Thanks for putting up with my rambling question.

Vinnie Sorce said...

I've only written about ten queries so far and that's enough to last a lifetime...

Susan Sandmore said...

I have begun with a line or two, I admit. But I've never followed up with "So begins my..." You can just hear John Boy's voice-over. "So began the days when Grandpa dressed like geisha and we all had chicken feed sandwiches for lunch . . ."

I can see why it would annoy D.M. (By which I mean Donald Maass, not Danger Mouse.)

Thanks for the tip(s)!

L.P. Davis said...

I'm really enjoying your blog - you give such refreshingly straightforward advice.

I've looked for a good place to ask this question, and you seem fairly generous in answering them in this post, so I thought it was worth a shot:

In a query from a new novelist, is it a good idea to mention that you have ideas for a series involving the characters of the novel, or is it best to just stick to the one novel at hand? (I'm not suggesting pitching several novels at once, but maybe stating that the author is at work on a second adventure for our heros?)

What is your advice on that?

Thanks!

Nathan Bransford said...

L.P.-

Thanks so much for the nice comment. Here's the post on how to discuss series in a query.

l.p. davis said...

Thanks very much - sorry I missed that in my reading.

L. T. Host said...

Nathan, you're a peach-- thanks for pointing me over here. I totally get the point of this post, but what if it's not a direct quote from the book? For example, my first lines are in first person, but my query is in third. Therefore it would be tweaked a little and it's not a direct quote but it's pretty close-- most of the same words, just the character name instead of "I," and such.

I am probably totally being the neurotic writer, but this really got me thinking. I can carry this over in to the forums if you think that would be better, maybe that way I can post some examples, too.

Nathan Bransford said...

l.t.-

Save the lines for the manuscript. Just focus on writing the query.

L. T. Host said...

Ok, thanks!

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