Every day I see articles like The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents on Facebook or in email. Mostly, they’re useful. More so with this article–it drives home the point. There are many ways to fail, and here’s a list of the popular ways. Don’t do this!
When writing with the intent of publishing, I believe that understanding the conventions of the industry and expectations of the readers is vital in forming the story. This has nothing to do with ideas of the story, merely the manner in which those ideas are presented to the reader.
The truth of the matter is that publishers make money by selling books. Agents make money by publishers selling books. Authors make money by publishers selling books. The public buys books. It is in the agents, publishers, and authors best interest (and best financial interest) to publish books the public wishes to read.
Therefore, when agents say, “I don’t like X,” they’re really saying the public won’t buy X. For instance, I have no doubt that every book would have a prologue if the public wanted to read prologues, regardless of an agent’s or editor’s personal preference.
With that in mind, my feeling on advice regarding articles such as this is: Listen. A skilled writer can tell an excellent story by staying within the common guidelines such as mentioned in the article above.
In the article, agents advised against against prologues. What I found new, though, was the rationale. Different agents indicated they feel that prologues keep them outside the plot or that they’re getting backstory that would be better presented throughout the novel. It’s not prologues, per se, it’s how they’re often used. Or misused, actually. So much so, that prologues have a bad name.
The best item from the article is about exposition and description where agents and editors proscribe against “long, flowery, over-descriptive sentences” or the “‘laundry list ‘ character descriptions.” To an extent, I’ve seen this in published works, and it requires perseverance to plod through. Over the years and through various critique groups, I’ve also seen this in many unpublished works. Unfortunately, it’s a common trait among beginning writers. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s common, nonetheless.
At one point, I spent a page describing the snow, ice, and cold of Antarctica. Thankfully, an author pointed it out, and I heeded her advice. In the end, a short description, based in my POV character’s experience of the environment (a show, rather than tell) served the story (and the readers’ interest) far better than all of those words.
When I see advice such as this article, I tend to heed it and pass it along, so beginning writers can get a head start.