Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Insecure Writer and Changes in the Publishing Industry



Today is April's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.


What makes me an Insecure Writer this month?

My fear that the world of publishing is changing faster than I can adapt.

We all know the publishing industry is in the midst of change. The rise of self-publishing, the changing roles of agents and editors, the increased competition for the reader's attention. All issues of concern. But I’m not discussing any of these topics today. Today, I'm worried about changes in how story openings should work – at least in the view of agents and editors.

Consider the opening lines from the first Harry Potter book.

 Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Now I happen to love this opening. It shows the author has both a sense of humor and an interesting voice. And it immediately makes me want to know what sort of strange and mysterious event is about to happen, which is exactly what opening lines are supposed to do. But a week ago I ran across a blog post that mentioned this opening and, to my surprise, the blogger seemed dumbfounded that the opening had worked. “There's no action,” the blogger wrote. “No conflict.” Why would anyone read on? And I could only shake my head.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard similar views on the subject. From what I unerstand, agents are now telling writers that if there’s no action or conflict at the beginning of a story, then their book stands little chance of getting published. And that worries me.

You see, three years ago, when I first began perusing the blogosphere for advice on writing, one of the first things I learned was that beginnings needed to hook the reader quickly or the author risked losing them. No long descriptions, no weather reports, no boring conversations, etc. Intrigue the reader quickly—that was the trick. And many ways were suggested to accomplish this. Pose an interesting question, show the reader something unusual, foreshadow something mysterious, use humor, begin in media res. And, of course, consider getting conflict on the very first page. All very good ideas. My point is that three years ago, getting conflict on the first page was only one of the ways to hook your readers. Now it sounds as though it’s the required method for hooking your reader -- at least according to the gatekeepers. Makes me wonder if Harry Potter would be published if it came out now.

The problem is, not all stories lend themselves to immediate conflict, which, I suspect, is one reason so many scifi/fantasy stories begin with action filled prologues. And this requirement for immediate conflict is leading to some unfortunate trends in books. Many of the MG fantasies I’ve been reading lately all start out in the same way -- with siblings arguing and sniping at one another in an otherwise boring chapter. The characters may be heading toward a haunted mansion, or a deserted town, or a suspected alien base, but instead of intriguing the reader by foreshadowing the upcoming events, the authors apparently feel obligated to generate artificial conflict by having the characters call each other names for several pages.

If you can begin your story with real conflict that leads to the main plot, then by all means do it. But sticking in artificial (and boring) conflict just to have it present in the first pages leaves me cold.

Sorry. I'm supposed to be talking like an insecure writer. I’ll get off the soapbox now.

Has anyone else noticed trends in books dictated by the new climate in publishing?

30 comments:

  1. Great post! I agree with you 100%. A foreshadowing of what's to come is way better than pointless bickering. That being said, I like to see a legitimate struggle in book beginnings, even if it's only internal. Now that you've brought this subject into the light, I'll pay a lot more attention. :)

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    1. I don't know how many times I rewrote my first chapter just to make sure there was something interesting going on from the very first line. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. I agree with you. The publishing industry is changing faster than we can adapt. I am constantly reading about how the begining paragraph should have action, conflict and intrigue.

    Visiting from the IWSG.

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    1. I hope the publishing industry slows down a little and gives us a chance to catch our breath.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. I loved Harry Potter from page 1 too but I suggested my aunt try the books and she gave up by the time she got to the cupboard under the stairs and refused to try any further. I've given up on books which I thought tried too hard from the opening paragraph. If those books had been recommended to me by readers I was usually in synch with, I might have persevered. I do remember reading that the first chapter of Gone With The Wind was the last to be finished and was re-written 6 times :)

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    1. Not everyone is going to enjoy the same books as we do.

      And I agree with you. If the first sentence seems to be trying too hard, and stands out from the rest of the story, I tend to skip that book.

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  4. Look at our movies. They're all about action and less about substance and they've helped create a society of attention deficit adrenaline junkies. And people want their books to do the same thing. Your post isn't the first one today I've read about this problem.

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  5. Hi Ken, Yes forcing conflict before it should be there does not a good story make. The natural interaction and creation of story is much better than an artificial conflict. I have met book writers who were turned down by many a gate keeper until the right one came along to appreciate their talent, and then the door to success sprung wide open. Sounds like you have the right attitude. God bless, Maria from Delight Directed Living

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  6. I definitely agree with you. We are living in a time when technology allows us to have information almost instantly and in turn people want to get to the action of a story in the opening scene.

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  7. I keep reading this, too, but I don't believe in forcing conflict for the sake of it. There are other ways to hook the reader and entice them to read on, perhaps through an intriguing detail or a hint of things to come. I think if the story's interesting then readers will persevere with it!

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    1. The trick is to make sure any conflict plays into the storyline, even if the reader doesn't quite realize that at the beginning.

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  8. This is the change in the industry you're worried about? If you're still concerned about what agents and editors think then you're seriously behind the times. Hint: agents and editors have no idea what readers want. ;)

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    1. Oh, I've suspected for a long while that many agents and editors don't really know what the readers want, but as long as they are the gatekeepers - unless we self-publish - we still have to concern ourselves with want they think the readers want.

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  9. Well, regardless of the publishing industry, I think your list of good ways to open a story are still right on (and I've seen that mirrored on good writing blogs, I think maybe even on an agent's blog, too). I recall several discussions where that "open with action" has been misinterpreted - because action for actions sake doesn't intrigue the reader because we have no reason to care yet.

    The Harry Potter opening works so well (despite the fact that it reminded me of the Hobbit opening! - no surprises or adventures thank you very much -- maybe she did that on purpose??) I heard it took many tries before Rowling found someone who would give HP a chance, but that just says (to me) that the publishing business is diverse - as it should be - because readers are so diverse. Agents and editors are looking for different things to meet their specialized slice of the diversity out there.

    But having said all that, I too feel insecure about all the rapid changes out there!

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    1. I hope you're right about agents and editors being a diverse group. Otherwise I may have no choice but to self-publish.

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  10. I think some that demand for layers of conflict comes from the Donald Maass book, Writing the Breakout Novel. He talks about adding internal conflict to go with the external, and he gave me the idea that he meant the more the better. That's how I ended up with such a complicated book that it spoiled the real focus. Since removing the character who was taking over, I now I take any one person's advice with a big block of salt. Same goes for not including back story within the first few chapters.

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    1. I've never thought backstory was bad in the first chapter, as long as the writer didn't get carried away with it, doled it out in small portions, and worked to make it interesting and in the flow of the story.

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  11. I think people get too caught up in "the rules" Sometimes things just work, and other times, they just don't.

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    1. The problem is trying to figure out what works when you get so many conflicting opinions!

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  12. Ah, this worries me too. I believe that 90% of books published prior to 2000 wouldn't get published today. Apart from blatantly obvious flaws, a whole book cannot be judged on the first few paragraphs. I've read some brilliant openers with nothing but rubbish afterwards. I'd much rather the author take a chapter or two and hook me into a great tale legitimately.

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    1. I guess we'll all have to become mega-authors so that we have more control over the way we write our books. :)

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  13. I'm so glad you posted this, and that I read it. (I'm struggling with polishing an opening right now.) While I think it's important to pay attention to the shifts in what readers want and expect (e.g. those of us who grew up with TV & movies preferring a closer POV than omniscient), I agree that false conflict in the opening is wasted - especially, like Jeff said, if the rest of the book doesn't live up to the quality of the first page.

    Great post. :)

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    1. I'm struggling with the first chapter in my new manuscript right now too. Trying to fit everything in (a little action, some conflict, character introductions, and foreshadowing of things to come) is driving me crazy. I know what's going to happen in the chapter, I haven't figured out how to do it smoothly yet. Thanks for the comment, Melissa

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  14. Yes! Everyone wants the action to start right now. Sooner would be better. But I also think there's a balance. I know that what agents don't want is a 30 page exposition on the world views of the local rodents to start a book.

    I do think it's important to understand that conflict doesn't always mean action, and it's best to have tension as early as possible. I think one of the best opening chapters for tension without a hair raising action scene is Chapter one of Across the Universe by Beth Revis. That is some fantastic conflict for that character.

    I think you have to write your story and believe in it. Good luck!

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    1. I wound up changing the beginning of my story several times before I hit upon the right combination of action and exposition. I was such a newbie, my MC didn't even show up in the first two chapters!

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    1. I use Blogger, which sets everything up for you so you don't have to fiddle with much HTML. It's not exactly WYSIWYG either since you just fill in the text and it positions the words for you. It's a good place to start.

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  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  17. A great voice will hook me just as much as a novel that starts with action or a conflict. I do prefer great voice over fake conflict. It's funny to hear an agent or editor say that if there is no action or conflict then a book stands little chance of being published. Especially since I've picked up newly released books (recently too), read the few pages, and neither of those things are there.

    It's always a pleasure to read your posts, which is why I nominated you for an award. Click here to learn more.

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    1. I wonder if those books were self-published? If they were traditionally published then that's a good thing since it means there are agents out there that will consider the story as a whole instead of using a set rule.

      Thanks for the nomination. I'm glad you enjoy the blog.

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