You know that agents and editors and readers rarely read beyond the first page if that page doesn’t grab them. But what you may not know is that we often stop reading if something puts us off.
What puts us off, you ask? Risky moves.
As an agent, writing teacher, former acquisitions editor, and reader, I’ve read—and continue to read—tens of thousands of opening pages. And I’ve found that even good writers often take chances that they’d be better off avoiding—chances that can sabotage their efforts to sell their work.
This is especially true of debut authors. I tell new clients that they get one risk per book—and that they need to amortize all the rest. When I point out those risks—the ones that raise red flags—they’re often surprised by the risks they’ve inadvertently taken. These risks run the gamut from genre mashing and multiple storylines to stream of consciousness and unreliable narrators. But the most common, the ones that seem to plague the most manuscripts, are these three.
1. Present tense
Present tense is enjoying a renaissance at the moment. But present tense is not the norm; past tense is the traditional storytelling tense. Present tense calls attention to itself, and sets up an expectation of “literary” prose. So just keep that in mind, especially if you are writing genre fiction.
2. Point of view (POV)
Point of view issues are often what keeps otherwise sellable authors from selling. Here are some general POV rules that you ignore at your peril:
- No omniscient point of view.
- When writing first-person POV, stick to one POV per book.
- When writing third-person POV:
- Stick to third-person limited POV;
- Only one POV per scene; and
- Only five POVs per book.
3. Unlikable protagonist
If I had a deal for every time I heard an editor tell me “I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist,” I’d be Swifty Lazar. I know, I know unlikable heroines and anti-heroes seem to be all the vogue these days, but if you look closely, there’s usually something compelling or competent about these characters when they’re successful. Think of Sherlock Holmes, who’s kind of a narcissistic jerk, but we love him anyway because he’s just so wicked smart.
Remember, I’m not telling you that you can’t make the risky moves noted above. I’m just saying that until you’re more established, you should play it safe—and take only one big risk per book.
To paraphrase Mary Oliver:
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious risk?
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