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?