Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How Do My Books Fit an Agent's Criteria?

Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head
Stands Guard
In the foreground (from left):
A'zhu'lo (Ki'shto'ba's twin),
Wei'tu and Twa'sei
(the smallest Worker),
Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer
(a Star-Winged Alate)
       On his excellent blog Nicholas Rossis recently published a post entitled The Worst Way to Begin a Novel. His criteria are excerpted from The Write Life and enumerate complaints of agents that can cause rejection.  I decided it would be interesting to consider some of my own books in relation to these criteria, so here goes!
"Prologues: not so much! Agents find them boring and think that it’s much better to include the description of the prologue in the actual story plot."
       I have only one book with an addition called "Prologue" at the beginning.  It's my WIP entitled The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars.  I extracted this and published it in the first Read for Animals book (proceeds going to support animal shelters) because it deals with a wounded eagle.    I'm thinking if I ever publish that humongous novel, I might retitle the Prologue as Chapter 1, because it relates directly to something that happens early on in the book and also to the book's broader theme of the eponymous Captain as a wounded man.  Furthermore, it's quite absorbing in itself.  I wouldn't want to omit it.
       However, all of my Ki'shto'ba books have introductory matter, specifically, a Translator's Foreword, because I've set up a scholarly framework.  These are tales written by an extraterrestrial and they require scholarly explanations. 
"No dreams in the first chapter: it makes readers identify with a story plot and/or a character/situation and then realize there was no point it, since it was not real. This can make them feel cheated."
       Not sure I agree with this premise, because dreams can be quite revelatory of a character's psychological state, so they can enrich the reader's understanding.  Why would that make you feel cheated?  That said, I've never written a dream in a first chapter.

"Too many descriptive adjectives: 'overwriting' is considered the mark of amateurish writing, as is language that’s too rich for its good.  As I always say, don’t let your writing get in the way of your story."
       I think Nicholas and I agree on this one.  I may occasionally violate it, although I'm not going to dig for an example.  You'll just have to read my books and decide for yourselves.

"No long descriptions: it’s all a question of balance between plot and description. You want to create a setting, but describing the colour of the flower in the vase for three paragraph could be dull."
       I think I deal with that pretty well, most of the time.  In Chapter 2 ("In the Nu'wiv'mi Marsh") of the second volume of the Ki'shto'ba series, there is quite a lot of description of the Companions' surroundings, including the plants and animals. I think any conworlder would appreciate that -- how can you construct a world and then not describe it?  And this watery environment is new to the characters in the story as well, so it fascinates them.
"Action: literary agents want action in the first chapter so that they -- and the readers -- get hooked."
       I sometimes violate this one.  I think I handled it OK in The Termite Queen, v.1, because the first short chapter is an internal monologue of the captive termite, and the second chapter introduces some characters in a way that doesn't explain everything (Who is this strange being on the other end of the com link?  Why does he talk in musical notes?  I want more!)  However, I confess that in the Ki'shto'ba series, I sometimes open with a chapter where Di'fa'kro'mi is simply talking with his scribe about his present life, his old age, how he happened to invent writing, etc.  The books often don't have much action until the second chapter or even later because that's where our narrator begins the actual story.  But when you get to that point, things pop. 
       Here are some sample openings of the main part of the text:
       Vol. 2: The Storm-Wing:
“We are lost.  I mean, we are quite lost!  Yes, I have to admit it.  I am not at all sure of the way!”
Ra’fa’kat’wei’s confession did nothing to improve my mood.  I was covered with mud, my wings were encrusted with drying shreds of water-weed, and I was sprawled on my belly huffing with fatigue.  So my rejoinder was tart.
“A fine guide you have turned out to be!  You said you knew all the paths!”
Vol. 3: The Valley of Thorns (this sets a tone of nostalgia, an anticipation of something that will be lost, including a bit of foreshadowing):
As travel-weary as they were, the Marcher Commander Gri’a’ein’zei’a disdained to rest its company long, saying that the situation demanded speed.  The following day we spoke our final farewells to our good friend Sa’ti’a’i’a, girded on our gear, and regretfully allowed No’sta’pan’cha to slip into our past.  When we came to the Ya’ur’akh’on, I looked down the valley toward the land where that river had another name.  My home fortress of Lo’ro’ra lay somewhere out there, past the distant haze that eternally hung upon the swamp Nu’wiv’mi, down the river called Rim’pol’bu, between the volcanoes, beyond Za’dut’s home fortress of Kwai’kwai’za.  I would not come even that close to the place of my hatching again in many season-cycles … so many …
Vol. 4: Beneath the Mountain of Heavy Fear (where  the Companions first encounter Bu'gan'zei, the Orpheus character):
       A wind had sprung up – the tree limbs seemed to be dancing and from a nearby overhang some stones broke loose and skittered down …
       Is’a’pai’a was the first to receive the sending and it stopped so abruptly that Wei’tu and Za’dut bumped into its posterior.  Then we all took the sensation – an antenna-buzz at once penetrating and delicate, so unusual that we were all entranced.  Simultaneously there was the smell of a male At’ein’zei Alate, along with the rank odor of reptiles and the feather-stench of birds!
       “Holy Nameless!  What can that be?” Ra’fa’kat’wei exclaimed.
       And then we detected words in the sending …
Finally, my latest publication, v.5: The Wood Where the Two Moons Shine (also an example of my description):
       After safely negotiating the daunting bridge that crossed the Sho’gwai’grin at the Great Waterfall, we found ourselves descending an ancient zigzag path that had been hollowed out by the scraping of countless claws.  Off to our right, the escarpment, an impassable precipice layered with gray and white and brown stone, stretched westward until it vanished into the distance.  To the southeast, beyond the end of the spur, we could see the glinting line of the river, with cliffs continuing to abut it on the east.  If we were to follow the west bank of that river, it would bring us into Gwai’sho’zei country and lead us quickly to the sea.
       Our immediate destination lay southwest, however.  In that direction we could see stubby hills thickly covered with dark trees and hung about with mist.  I always associate mist with these lands in which we would spend the final days of Ki’shto’ba’s quest. 
Personally, I think those are pretty good opening paragraphs, but I could be prejudiced!

"Make the reader want to learn more: the literary agent wants to see something captivating about the character, something that will make her read more in order to discover the plot and how the character unwinds."  And I'm combining with this: "Characters that are too perfect."
       Character is all, in my opinion!  Well, not all, of course -- a good tale needs many layers and aspects -- but still, if the characters are crudely drawn, cliched and commonplace, the whole story falls flat.  The good guys and the heroines need to have flaws and quirks that make them human (even if they are alien termites! -- "human" is in the eye of the beholder!)  And the villains ...  well, it's nice to have a villain that has redeeming qualities -- whose motivations are comprehensible -- although I confess to finding few redeeming qualities in Mo'gri'ta'tu (the villain who wreaks such havoc in The Termite Queen).  But then I based Mo'gri'ta'tu on Iago in Othello, who is frequently criticized for having unclear motivations.  The villain in The Wood Where the Two Moons Shine is possibly a little easier to understand, although he is even more devious and evil than Mo'gri'ta'tu, if that's possible.

"Don’t describe your characters fully in the first chapter: a), it’s boring, b) you really need to leave mystery for the rest of the book."
       My characters never emerge all at once; after all I've written some 600,000 words in the Ki'shto'ba series (averaging about 100,000 words per volume).  If they all emerged in the first chapter, nothing would be left to write!  They change and grow as the series progresses -- every single one of them.

"Unrealistic situations: literary agents feel that however inventive and imaginative a book can be, some things have to remain genuine and authentic, especially when it comes to human reactions."
       So how do you remain "genuine and authentic" when you're writing about giant alien termites?  You do it just as I said above -- you make them as close to human as you can.  You show that extraterrestrials -- aliens, if we must call them that -- may very well share the human qualities of compassion, caring, loyalty, self-sacrifice, adventurousness, joy, grief, and humor.  They also share characteristics  like intelligence, stupidity, anger, betrayal, sibling rivalry, a desire for revenge, and the ability to forgive.  It doesn't matter if they have three Castes and all of them are deaf and two Castes are blind.  It doesn't matter if they can only speak through their antennae, if they breathe through the sides of their bellies, if the Warriors can't feed themselves, if some of the species eat their own dung, or if all of them are necrophages.  What really matters is what is in their guts, or as humans might prefer to say, in their hearts -- their several hearts.  That is what makes them "genuine and authentic" and I'm egocentric enough to think I achieve that.  Whether a literary agent would ever think so is irrelevant.

Thanks again to Nicholas Rossis for giving me the idea for this blog post.


  1. Thank you for the kind mention! I'm so glad to have inspired such a fine post!

    And you're right: those are pretty good opening paragraphs. More than anything, I enjoyed your last line: "Whether a literary agent would ever think so is irrelevant." I think that's the bottom line: it is interesting to read what other think may please them, but write to please yourself.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Nicholas! I agree - if you don't enjoy your own writing, you shouldn't be writing. I've read about authors who hate writing - they have to force themselves and they do it only for the money. That's not me!