Agents’ Advice for Writers

Today, since I have begun to work again, and working means I should write a blog to get my mind and fingers flowing, I have decided to mention two pieces of advice I have seen in numerous places while submitting query letters. One is titled Writing 101 or something similar, and discusses the need to begin with a character who is in a comfortable situation, who then wants something or has conflict introduced to their lives, and so must take a physical or spiritual journey that changes their outlook and then returns them to a comfortable place. This is known as a story arc.

I don’t like this piece of advice. Not because it isn’t true. It really is story-telling 101. My problem with this piece of advice is that any story teller should already do this automatically. Otherwise they’re not really telling a story, right? So my question is, what kind of novels are these agents getting, that they think they need to put this sort of advice on their websites? And more importantly to me, why the heck aren’t they even bothering to read my novels? I have story arcs. I have story arcs all over the place, but I can’t even get my query letters through the door, past the “butt-sniffing stage.”

The second piece of advice is to not write prologues. Most books don’t need them, or so the wisdom goes, and it’s better for a writer to just begin at the beginning without the fancy labels. This piece of advice is better, although I do have a prologue (I wrote it before I read that advice) and so I have to figure out what to do with that. Actually, I have an author’s note, and a little poem, and then a prologue, and I have begun to think that maybe all of those paragraphs are just too much jumping around, and it leads to confusion in what should be a straightforward story. So the advice is correct for me, and I will have to work on it.

I would still like to change the advice a little bit. Last night I began to read A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipaul, and it starts with a prologue. A wonderful prologue. A perfect beginning to the story. It introduces the character, tells us what he’s all about, and let’s us know that he is dying, but dying satisfied because of the struggles he has gone through and overcome in his life. At the same time it shows how fleeting and unimportant those struggles were, and what a farce the rules of life are. It’s a marvel of storytelling, and if I could write it I would have sold a million books already.

So here is my rule. Don’t write a prologue, unless you can write one as good as the prologue in A House for Mr. Biswas.


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