writer's digestPublishing Talk Daily, with its sometimes charmingly bizarre curatorial policy, has just picked up and headlined a piece from The Write Life dating back to August – but as it purports to be good writing advice and hasn’t appeared on TeleRead yet, I thought I’d cover it. Entitled “The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents,” the post describes some of the worst faux pas you can commit if you want the charmed circle of literary agents to mock and shun you. Which may not be a bad thing. Because many other great writers have done them …

The Agents say: We hold the keys

Chuck Sambuchino, who pulled this indispensible guide together, “is a staffer at Writer’s Digest Books, best-selling humor book author, and freelance query/synopsis editor.” And the guide is apparently excerpted from the 2014 Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books. “No one reads more prospective novel beginnings,” he says of agents. “They’re the ones on the front lines, sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they’re the ones who can tell us which Chapter One approaches are overused and cliché, as well as which techniques just plain don’t work.”

What better place to begin then? And let’s see what a few of them have to say.

Of false beginnings, for example: “I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated,” says Cricket Freeman of the August Agency. That’s a bit awkward – because how can you know it’s the main character of the entire novel if they exit stage left at end Chapter One? And if it’s a matter of retrospect, well, John Huston and partners’ adaptation of Ernst Hemingway’s The Killers for Robert Siodmak wouldn’t have made it onto the film noir classics list on Cricket’s watch, no sir.

And in science fiction, meanwhile, Chip MacGregor bemoans “a sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.” Heaven forbid he should ever encounter the somber, brooding, evocation of fogbound London in the first pages of Bleak House. But then, Charles Dickens never wrote sci-fi, right?

Oh, and prologues. “Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!” observes Laurie McLean of Forward Literary. Well, I guess things have speeded up a bit since the ambling pace of Geoffrey Chaucer’s days, when he felt obliged to kick off The Canterbury Tales with the General Prologue.

As for Voice, “I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story,” says Cherry Weiner of Cherry Weiner Literary, sparing no time for the shade of Oscat Wilde, Walter Pater, or even Amy Leach.

And I could go on. And on. And on. But why flog a dead horse when I could be out flogging my next Great UnAmerican Novel? After all, it’s Christmas and the right festive season for literary parlor games, so why not have fun with your friends picking out all the patently obvious outstanding exceptions to Sambuchino’s list. But better keep it in the home circle, and away from the ears of the agents. After all,  they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys. Which means that sooner or later, someone is going to have to go through them. (Unless you want to court eternal shame and oblivion through self-publishing, that is …)


  1. As a writing teacher with several degrees in criticism and a judge for dozens of writing contests for unpublished authors, I’ve read thousands of manuscripts, and I agree with everything the agents say.

    It’s a false criticism to use older works to show that these agents are wrong. Narrative requirements have changed drastically over the years, and any writer who thinks they can do exactly what Dickens, Chaucer, and even Hemingway did with their narrative will come off sounding like an incompetent author and lose their audience within a few pages.

    These days, a writer has just a few paragraphs to catch the interest of an audience, be it a reader or agent. It’s not wise to waste those paragraphs in out-of-date narrative.

    For more on the changes in narrative, I suggest these articles:



  2. I just discovered a delightful discussion on Oh No They Didn’t! about the “winners” of the 2013 Bad Sex in Fiction Award http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/84262474.html

    Almost better than the award winners (which were pretty bad and violated many of the agent rules mentioned above) is the discussion in the comments about other bad sex scenes. Fair warning. Brain bleach may be required afterwards. I was previously blissfully ignorant of what is apparently an iconic scene from 50 Shades. Anyone know how to selectively kill memory neurons?

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