April 22nd, 2016

Five Comparisons NOT to Make for Your Book

Chuck Sambuchino

GIVEAWAY: In two weeks time, Chuck will pick a random commenter from this post to win his book, Get a Literary AgentGet-a-Literary-Agent. Simply comment to win. Good luck!

Sometimes when I talk to writers, I’ll hear them try to justify a writing decision or book element by comparing their story to other published work that’s quite unlike their own project. An example looks like this:

I’ll teach about suggested word count for debut novels.

 Then a writer will say, “Did you read Harry Potter, dude? Those books were way longer than what you advise. Buffoon.”

Something like that. It doesn’t have to be about word count, but the gist is that the writer will point to a successful book, flabbergasted, and essentially say, “That book did such-and-such, and the book succeeded, so I’m certainly OK doing it that way, too.”

So with that in mind, let me throw out some personal opinions on what not to do when comparing your work to other books, especially when you’re trying to justify when your work does not need rethinking or fixing or revising.

  1. Beware comparing your work to the current books of a bestselling author.

Examine Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which was published after his colossal success of The Da Vinci Code. It begins with a prologue, and then a dream sequence. First of all, agents generally frown upon prologues. But even if we give the prologue a free pass, dream sequences to start a book are universally disliked by agents and editors. (I hate them, too—except at the beginning of Total Recall, because that was awesome—but that’s a movie, and movies are different, as we shall soon discuss.)

Brown can get away with something like a beginning dream sequence because his books sell millions of copies, and people are going to buy them no matter what. He’s super established, with a seven-figure readership, so don’t necessarily try getting away with what he does in his current works—because he can make writing decisions that debut authors cannot.

This applies to all authors of today who are constantly on the fiction bestseller lists, such as James Patterson, Stephen King, Sandra Brown, and many more.

     2.  Beware comparing your work to novels written decades (or more) in the past.                                          

Look at Moby-Dick. There are some beautiful things about that book, but it’s commonly said (by me and my friends, at least) that half the book can be cut. I really don’t think that book would get published today in its current form. It would be cut down—perhaps drastically.

So don’t point to a novel written 20 years ago or 150 years ago and say, for example, “Well, that book took its sweet time to get interesting, so my book will, as well. After all, people love chapter upon chapter of meticulous description before any conflict occurs…”

  1. Beware comparing your work to novels that were first published outside your country.

Because I’m embedded in the U.S. publishing market, I believe it’s unwise for U.S. writers to look at novels first published in Sweden or Russia or Japan, and say, “Well that book did such-and-such, so I can do it that way, too,” such as, “Well that book had oodles of gore and horrific things happening on page 1—even a gruesome rape—so my book can start that way, too.”

That’s an extreme example. But the point is that comparing the literary sensibilities of Japanese readers to American readers, for instance, makes no sense, because we don’t understand if cultural differences or literary expectations/traditions separate us.

  1. Beware comparing your work to movies.

Do not think that just because a movie did something that a debut novel can, as well. They’re completely different mediums.

I wrote about this before for Writers in the Storm, explaining the difference between how a movie can begin, versus how a novel should begin the same story to best hook readers in.

  1. Beware comparing your work to books outside your genre.

This is the smallest point of the five, but one to take note of. Maybe you read a science fiction epic that spans 125,000 words, and takes great pride in its painstaking world building and description. “This is a great book,” you say, “and I can take lessons from this for my own book.” OK, fair enough (because you can), but keep in mind you’re writing a thriller, which is a genre known for moving very briskly on the page. Thriller readers aren’t usually interested in debut books of 125,000 words, nor are they interested in novels that slow down to give the writer an opportunity to flex their literary muscle in repeatedly describing the scenery and weather.

(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)

One Thing You Should Be Doing

I’m taking this point directly from agent Sara Megibow of KT Literary, who said it to writers at a conference in 2014. Megibow was critiquing the unpublished first pages of writers, and urged conference attendees to “read debut novels in their genre published in the last two years.”

It’s a great point, because by following her advice, writers will:

  • Read the work of debut authors—which is important because a debut author has no built-in readership and nothing going for them. (They are the opposite of Dan Brown in the point above.) This means a debut writer must hook you immediately on page one and not count on you sticking around even if the story isn’t interesting or well written.
  • Read the work of those in your genre—which helps a writer understand what makes their own genre or category tick.
  • Read debuts of the past two years—which forces writers to examine works of today—i.e., what’s working now, what’s selling now, what’s effective now.

Don’t get me wrong. You can read bestsellers and foreign novels and the classics, and learn good writing practices and excellent voice from all of them. Go for it. But if you find yourself trying to justify a decision or two or three (odd word count, unlikeable main character, story moving too slow, unorthodox point of view, starting with six prologues back-to-back, etc.) simply because another story did it and succeeded, ask yourself: Should I not be pointing to that story, because the book in question isn’t in the same ballpark as my own?

Do that much, and help your chances of getting published.

Do you have a tip to share about what to do–or what not to do–to get published?

Don’t forget the giveaway! In two weeks Chuck will pick a random commenter to win his book, Get a Literary Agent.

About Chuck

chuck-fw-head-shot.jpgChuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures.  Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

160 comments to Five Comparisons NOT to Make for Your Book

  • Thanks for the tips, Chuck. I especially like the reference to reading debut novels. That makes sense as these are the ones that agents are snatching up.

  • Sandra McHugh

    As usual, lots of cut to the chase and solid advice to new authors dealing with issues we
    haven’t been toe to toe with before. Thanks for the tips… and sharing so specifically the rationale behind them!

  • Thanks for the info. I have tried reading some debuts and wonder how the heck they made it through to print word. But that’s me. I’ll worry about my own words. That’s what will get me published. And so I appreciate your expertice and guidance.

    • Fae Rowen

      As I’ve progressed down the writer path, I’ve found it harder to find new writers that I want to wait excitedly for their next book release, too, Alice. But when I do find one, it’s worth it!

  • Comparing is never a good idea. Not personally, with writing or any other avenue. In the past, when I compared myself or my work to others it just pulled me down. So I don’t do it. I’ve seen this in author friends and I try to guide them out of the comparison habit. I’m going to bookmark this post so I can share it when needed. Thanks for writing about this topic. Great tips.

  • Great piece, I think often a debut author has been lost and locked away for so long writing their book, that they often miss out the “current reading in your genre” bit. They’ll say that they don’t want to be distracted from their own story, but it is very important.

  • It’s human nature to compare everything about ourselves and our writing to other writers and their work. Social media practically demands that we do. I find myself getting sucked into a downward depressing spiral when I do this, thinking, “I could NEVER write like that person.” In fact, when I read anything and think, “I COULD write that!” I usually put it down. Sometimes those are recent bestsellers and that sends me further into my spiral of – I’ll never make it. Eventually, though, I heave myself out of the hole I’ve dug and just write. Comparisons are so dangerous. For me, at least, it’s best to focus on my own story, not someone else’s, and as Dori says in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming..”

  • I raced to the internet to look up your tip about reading debut novels. Two published authors recommended that I compare my first novel to other books in my query letters. What books? I thought. Now I have some reading to do. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the great “Bewares.” Whenever I’m asked to speak to small writers groups, my mantra is write what you love to read, and read, read, read in that genre. Now I can reinforce theme that with your “Beware comparing” as well. Thanks again. …Marilyn (writing as cj petterson)

  • Thank you Chuck. I’m scouring the web and libraries right now for comps. It’s overwhelming the amount of reading I will be doing to identify my comps. Your tip to read debut authors from the last two years is an excellent take-away. Thanks again!

  • Fantastic advice, Chuck. I especially like the advice to read the openings of debut novels in our genre. Thank you 🙂

    • Fae Rowen

      Over the years, the openings of books have changed dramatically. No more back story or extensive setting descriptions; we have to get right to the action/story points now. It’s important to see how others handle those changes, to give us a better chance to sell, Melinda. Thanks for your comments.

  • morgynstarz

    Groan, (yet smile.) What do you do when you can not find a comp other than genre and age group? I keep seeking, seeking, seeking . . .

    I tried a couple of the no-no’s, including time traveling. Whoa, what a wrong-headed move that would have been. A writer I’d loved as a kid, I couldn’t get through a whole page.

    The debut authors suggestion sounds a lot like what I say to my crit partners. Nope, not going to cut it. You’ve got maybe a graf to catch an agent’s attention. (More likely a line.) Can not afford any mucking about.

    Thanks, Chuck! And boy would I love to win a copy of your book because I’ll be heading into the trenches soon.

  • I will take your advice about reading the opening of debut novels. I also have to admit, I have been known to start with a dream sequence.

    • Fae Rowen

      We’ve all made mistakes, olderwriter. I think that’s one of the best ways to learn. But we do need to learn from those mistakes. Ah, for the old days when the dream sequence could set up back story and goals…

  • Thanks, Chuck, for this post. I have been trying to not compare myself to those in my critique group (they all seem so much better than me). It’s difficult not to compare, but I know I need faith in what I’m doing. I never thought about reading debut authors. Great tip!! Thanks again, Irene

    • Fae Rowen

      Writing and reading, both in your genre and about the craft of writing, are the ways to speed your learning curve, Irene. Sounds like you’re doing both. Can’t wait to see your published book!

    • I know what you mean about the other author’s in your writing group. There are a few ladies in mine that are amazing. Every time they read their stories I am envious at how beautifully the words flow and their word choices are so much more mature then mine. I am glad that I get to work with them because hearing their cadence and word choices helps make my writing better each week.

  • Wonderful post and some fantastic advice! A few of these things I never thought about, especially the tip of debut authors of the past few years. Fantastic helps. Thank you so much!

  • Thanks for the excellent post and helpful advice overall. I try to avoid comparing my current WIP efforts to established authors and make a conscious effort to learn from them instead. I keep reminding myself that the great authors – current and past – started out at one time as unpublished and unknown. I love seeking out and reading debut novels. As a (hopeful) writer of my own first novel in progress, I find the debut novelist is most often refreshing in voice.

  • In essence, we’re saying comparing is good (as long as it’s apples to apples), but justifying isn’t. We compare to find common ground; we justify when we’re not even on the same planet.

  • Beverly Turner

    Chuck…As I near the end of my WIP, I have been reading multiple authors in my genre and have been disappointed in some and pleasantly surprised by others. But even with those that I felt missed the mark (but were still published), I have been able to figure out what I felt was weak. So a teaching moment is still a teaching moment.

    Thanks for all the great tips. Will definitely save this post for future reference.

  • Thank you so much for the post. I find Sara’s advice particularly helpful.

  • Barbara Warne

    My current WIP is more an attempted return to the kind of story telling from decades ago before everything became so very dark and often sickening. I read reviews of books and get the ones from the library that sound interesting but then hey are either too much like real life (I live in real life and don’t want a copy from my fiction) or more horrific than any real life I would want to live. I do not need heroes to be perfect (Sherlock Holmes had a drug habit) but I want them to be something I would actually want to learn from, to have as a model, to strive toward emulating. Sorry for the whining wish for comparisons for those of us who cannot find anything that fits. Once I find something, I will definitely not to use it to justify anything.

  • Laurie Wood

    Thank you for the “why” behind the “don’ts”! And we should be reading debut authors in our genres just as author support. They could be the one who eventually gives ours a read and endorsement. Thanks for these examples and I’ll also be bookmarking and sharing your post.

  • Jo Smith

    I’ve been writing for a long time but only submitted one ms in 2004 which I rushed to finish so I would be in a different category at a conference. Well wishers were behind me and thought it was wonderful. It is a good story but the writing is not. I do plan on revising/rewriting it and then submit it. I have been to many conferences and online classes plus all the creative writing classes at a college near by. Now i know the biggest mistake I made was not having an editor or agent to help me do corrections that will make the story stronger and flow well. I won’t make that mistake again. Thanks for the info on your freelancing offer.

  • Thank you for the great suggestions.

  • Somewhere I read a comparison between the first Harry Potter book and the last.

    I’m sure that if jkr had started the series with a book like the deathly hallows it wouldn’t have taken off

  • Merissa Racine

    In my writer’s group we’ve all talked about page count and we even brought up J.K. Rowling. What you say makes sense. Thanks for advice on reading debut novels in my genre. Appreciate it!

  • if you’re a new author, enter writing contests which are critiqued.


  • Why do agents and publishers want new authors to follow trends and be like every other author that is already published? I understand they’re chasing dollars, but comparing one glop of opaque goop to the next is the suburbia of storytelling…

    What you say is valid, but disheartening about the industry.

  • Some great ideas, and I do read debut novels of all different genres. Not just the ones I enjoy. Some are excellent, others … not so much. But that’s the joy of writing.

  • Rachel Lauderdale

    Thanks for the great post! I actually was googling a question I had on word count suggestions (after reading this blog, later in the day, and completely unrelated) and hit another article of yours in Writer’s Digest. I guess the universe is telling me I really need to be heeding your advice today. 🙂

  • Loved this. Now that I am growing clearer on my genre, I’ve been hunting for comps. Thanks for the reminder to search for more debut authors–solid point.

  • Great article. I wrote a book where the female protagonist was not very likeable and needless to say it hasn’t been picked up yet. So I journeyed on to other books.

  • Dyllan Becker

    You would think that people would understand things like this! Most of these were common sense to me bit apparently not to most people if there is an article about it. Thanks!

  • Andrea R Huelsenbeck

    Ooops. One of my works-in-progress begins with a dream sequence. I’m doomed.

  • Thanks for this Chuck. Your last couple points really resonate, reading current debut works and authors in my genre…couldn’t agree more!

  • Sharon R Anderson

    Great suggestion – thank you. I especially like re-reading debut fiction that I really like and studying the first chapter to figure out what hooked me in and what might have hooked the agent.

  • Thanks, Chuck. Enjoy your stuff. Lucky enough to have seen and chatted with you in person (Seattle, 2015–you read the first page or two of one my books and seemed to like it; the agent panel that day did also). Good advice here, as always. Hardest part of querying for me is genre categorization. I know which genres my novels AREN’T, though they often combine elements of several–making it difficult to: a) target agents; b) connect with them in only a few words. With advice such as you provide, I will keep plugging away. Thanks again.

  • pnnylnskywlkr

    How does one go about locating debut authors? I can think of looking up books published in the last year then searching their name one by one to find out, but I’m hoping there’s a simpler way.

  • I find books in my Genre easily. The problem is most of them are written from a single POV in first person. My current WIP is a third person with multiple POV’s. Hard to compare. I read an article about comp’s recently that said it is okay to compare it to other types of media. I just entered a contest and added a comp to a song that explains one plot line perfectly. -Don’t know if that will help or hinder my chances. The best bet is to write a kick-@#! query that doesn’t need a comp.

  • Thanks for the tip to read debut novels of the last two years in my genre. Best advice I have heard. Thanks, Chuck. Your articles are always worth reading.

  • Thank you Chuck for excellent advice. I particularly liked the advice to read debut novels. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  • […] Do you ever compare your posts, newsletters, or any of your writing to someone else’s? Chuck Sambuchino provides several comparisons we should never make with our work. […]

  • Julie Jo Larson

    Thanks for the suggestions, especially the one about reading debut books in your genre. I try to read debut books from publishing houses in my state, to get a feel for what is happening in Minnesota. I also buy books from new authors in larger markets.

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Great information here. Writers must know the present market and not to compare with the giants or different mediums like the visual movies. Thanks so much for this. I’ve shared generously on social media.

  • Good to know about these common mistakes. It’s always helpful to know some of the potholes in the road to publishing that are avoidable.

  • Karen

    Thank you for the great tips! There is so much to learn in the publishing world. I appreciate your articles.

  • My WIP is a lot like the Bible crossed with Garfield (yup, the cat) with some Wizard of Oz – speaking of dream sequences – and Gone Girl thrown in … no, scratch all that! Guess I better find some different comps.
    Thanks for the good tips, Chuck.

  • How do you best identify comparative books for your manuscript? For example: my book/series features dragons, and their alien riders, on a distant planet, who eventually discover interstellar travel. Upon hearing the concept, friends have compared it to “Dragonriders of Pern”, but after finally reading “Dragonflight”, I learned that the similarities pretty much end with the description above.

  • Any tips for non-fiction authors?

  • Mike Cramer

    I agree with the points raised in the article. I think it’s important to know your market and to be as current as possible. My hope is that one’s style is distinct and yet familiar to an audience so that they are pre-disposed to liking it, and yet attracted to it’s distinctiveness. I also think it’s important to differentiate between saying “It’s a Millennial Catcher in the Rye” and essentially re-writing Catcher in the Rye with updated slang etc.

  • Great tips, great article. I would like to see advice to writers regarding sex in books. I find myself going too far or not far enough. Thanks for giving back.

    • Hi – good question. The interesting part of using sex within novels is that in many (perhaps most) cases sex involves an interruption in the narrative. You have story, story, story, and then a “time out” for this “stuff” and then back to the story. Where I find sex scenes really resonate – is when there is actual character or plot development within the scene itself. When I approach them in my work, that tends to be my litmus test.

  • I’m writing my first novel. The book will be action, action, action as if I’m watching a movie. I want people to turn the pages and tell their friends “Ya can’t put this one down”.

  • Miriam Shattuck

    Thanks for the help!!! I’ve learned a ton since self publishing my book. I wish I knew some if this stuff a couple years ago because I think it would be doing much better! Time to learn from failure, take advice like this, and write something amazing!!

  • Kimberly Bea

    These are great tips! I have a lot of writing acquaintances who do the comparison thing and say “Well, Rowling has adverbs all over, so I can, too.” But I always think it’s foolish to assume I’ll be the exception to the rule, so I try to find stronger verbs instead. And I have been justifying my OwlCrate subscription by saying that’s how I keep track of what’s new in the YA genre, so that was welcome advice, too! Thanks!

  • Danielle Pays

    Great advice. I really like the idea of reading debut novels from the last two years. I had not thought about that but that make sense.

  • So much reading, so little time! I’ve been trying to read debut (or newer) authors, but I also want to read a classic a year at least.

    I’ve also been trying to make my reading list more diverse. the characters in my WIP don’t share the same heritage, and I want to represent all of them well and fairly. 🙂

  • James Bouck

    Thank you for all of your advice. I don’t believe any one source can do for me what I need to do to be a success. I try and may the good public be my judge. Advice what you give us and advice from the talents and knowledge of all those before me are my building stones. I can only write and do my best. Again thank you.

  • Just after my nativity allowed me to sign a two-year contract with a vanity publisher, I read Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain. My An Odyssey of Illusions seemed to be similar without purposeful intent on my part. I should have read Stegner’s work first – not to copy but to understand his approach to the genre

  • Great tips- than you for sharing! Especially about remembering that even though there are exceptions to just about everything out there- as a debut author – those exceptions won’t apply to you. 🙂

  • Good article. Great suggestion on the debut novels. Thanks

  • I have not been comparing my options. I am writing in a different genre then I read in. My first book is an autobiography what with two genius’s in my family. I am also going blind slowly and I am an artist. I do portraits, landscapes, cartoons and abstracts. I am working on a adult coloring book for Christmas. I play piano and keyboard. I also make bracelets. So I am also working on a spiritual book. I read how to’s and thrillers. Right now I am going through a phase of thrillers that are on the New York Times best sellers list. I read lessons and I went through all the horse stories and how to train that they had in my school library. I enjoyed your article and find that it stimulates my brain in a positive fashion. I like it. I will put it into practice. Thank You!

  • Debut authors confront selling versus selling out. Yes: no back story in opening pages, a likable protagonist, no cliche dream sequences; but must every novel follow formula? Every new adult novel seems to open with a young woman expressing her professional goals and the bad boy love interest. Follow the rules but not the herd..

  • Meg

    This was very helpful for a newbie novelist. I’m curious to know if there is a “cheat sheet” listing genres and their typical word counts, etc. Thanks!

  • Good tips, Chuck. Especially in crime fiction, you have to be very careful about comparing your work to novels that were first published outside your country.

  • Great tips! I do like the advice of reading debut authors. I try to gain as much insight from them at signings and conventions as I can. They are usually more accessible than established authors and willing to take time to talk to me. 🙂

  • Esther Gayoba

    Great advice. I personally think many books are way too long these days.

  • Great article, I try not to compare my work to established authors, except to make a style comparison never to justify a style choice. I have seen many authors take that road and die on tbe vine.

  • Susan

    Good information. I appreciate the idea of including new authors on my reading list. Make sense to glean what works from those recently published. I’m looking forward to future hints.

  • Thanks for the good advice. I’m still working toward that evasive goal.

  • Isn’t writing fun! So great to see all the other comments from a community of debut-to-be writers like me. I always like the straight talk on what not to do.

  • Jude Austin

    Good, informative article. Thanks so much for sharing 😀

  • Patricia Faithfull

    Great advice, as always, Chuck. Looking forward to meeting you someday in person to thank you for all your sage advice!

  • I think this advice is well-taken; howevwr, most also recommend “compatibles” to help the agent understand the nature of the debut novel. In my case, the closest comparable is Dune. Of course that book is well over 30 years old. I could go with “Game of Thrones set in space,” but in the end, I go with no comparable.

    Thanks for the great advice!

  • Write your book. Say the most with the fewest words possible. Be passionate about the story, and characters. Always listen to good advise, i.e. this type of article. Don’t ever think that your story is too good. Every story needs improvement. Love what you do. Never stop learning. Always read, and learn from
    what you read. Most of all write what you believe.

  • Great article. It seems mighty bold to compare your unpublished book to a movie. Even more so to a popular author. All points make sense. Thanks so much for the invaluable counsel.

  • Stephanie Greene

    I’ve been struggling with the comp question. Thank for these ideas. Reading recent debut novels is an excellent idea. I’ve also gotten some interesting suggestions from my local librarian and indie bookstore buyers!

  • Good advice, Chuck. But one question: You say, *twice,* that movies are different; so why is it that every time I read a sample synopsis you’ve given as an example of the form, it’s of a film, and not of a novel? Whenever someone has asked you about them, they’re asking for help with their books, not screenplays. Yet the dozen examples I’ve read from you were of movies. (It’s a LOT easier to summarize a 120-page screenplay than a 400-plus-page novel.)

    Can you please tell me why you do that, and, more importantly, if you have links to several one-page synopses of novels for us? That would be a lot more helpful in the future.

    Thanks and keep up the o/w great work.

    Best of success!


  • Michelle Dinnick-Schulze

    I have often read that comparing one’s own work to anything well known is a bad idea… Yet I have also often read, that if one can truly “live up to it” – that it may be a good way to get a foot in the door… Good advice is always valuable! And differences in opinion are valuable learning tools 🙂 Thank you for the information in this article!

  • ravenlaw

    Great article. I’m always keeping an eye out for helpful tips to keep in mind when pitching a novel to an agent. These will serve me well. I’ll have to keep my reading list up to date! 🙂

  • Tanja Tuma

    Useful article. In my point of view, one of the strongest first sentences in a novel is Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I wonder whether his novels will get published in today’s quick paced race for attention.

  • Thank you for your good tips as it really helps a lot to young and aspiring writers like me and looking forward to more tips and suggestions.

  • Jill Herendeen

    OK, so, now to find a list of recent debut novels in my genre…

  • Thanks for the great information. As a debut author I am well aware of my limits in regards to well established authors.
    I am considering traditional publishing for my next children’s book. I have developed my own style and I have no intention of comparing my work with famous authors.
    I’ve been told repeatedly to write something fresh, and that’s exactly what I am aiming for. I have purchased the Artists and Writers Yearbook. The yearbook has the best resources for writers and is an indispensable guide to the publishing world.
    Hopefully, from trial and error without forgetting to mention perseverance, I may one day land an agent.
    I’m not a quitter.
    Jocelyne Turbett

  • John Allan

    Well comparing one’s book with that written by a known author isn’t necessarily a good idea, there are bestselling writers out there who are doing things that agents/publishers constantly warn debutees against doing.

    When known writers add hundreds, or thousands, of totally irrelevant words to a story, make glaring grammatical errors, use words out of context, confuse details … they, unlike a debut author, have no excuse.

  • John Allan

    Wonderful. Well should read while.

  • I too thought this was an important article. That said, I can’t tell you the number of workshops I’ve attended and articles I’ve read, from agents and others that reference listing “comparables” in your pitch. Do you still advocate that, or do you advise against it completely? If you do advocate it, what do you suggest on that front? Using a debut novel in our genre within the last few years for that is an intriguing option, though do we not also run a risk using a “comparable” that perhaps no one has heard of? Thanks again, always enjoy your work!

  • Donna Ring

    I enjoyed reading the comments as much as reading the article. I agree with so much mentioned: read debuts (I seek them out, and I do enjoy most of them), research your genre as well as the age group you are writing for, that today many novels are w-a-y too long. My motto is: write, revise, write, and then revise again and again…and again! Thanks to all for sharing!

  • Thank you for tips. My debut novel is in final editing so this article was very helpful.

  • Mary Krakow

    Thanks for these tips, Chuck. Queries are hard. Every bit of advice is appreciated!

  • Jennifer Mattox

    Chuck, thanks for this insightful post! I’ll recommend it as further reading for students in my “Querying Agents: Novels” class next week at the Carnegie Center.

  • Question regarding “leading with a dream sequence”: The sequence in my novel us essential as a dream. Readers have said the dream itself causes them to feel it as a cliffhanger at the start that sandwiches non-dream character & situation with a non-dream cliffhanger at the end of this chapter. Many, many readers tell me this dream is essential and grabs them. It CAN, however switch places with the end-of-chapter non-dream cliffhanger. So, my Q is: must the first chapter be entirely void of any dream sequence, or can the sequence be a chapter’s end and still satisfy this rule?

  • I am sending this to my son. He is an aspiring author and always says things like, “Dad, I took this from…insert movie here, or, Steven King did this”. It drives me nuts. I keep telling him to find his own voice. I am a published non-fiction author and working on my first novel, which has a prolog…now I need to rethink that! Thanks for all of your good advice.

  • Karla Sonnek

    I love this information. The information that I’ve received has pushed to study the agent and the books he/she accepted and compare them to yours — realistically — that’s an unusual description for others it seems. Be careful is what one agent told me. That’s a touchy subject.

    Karla Sonnek

  • Thanks for posting this, Chuck. Good stuff!

  • Thanks for the advice! I never knew that prologues and early dream sequences disillusioned agents. That surprised me right away, and good thing too because I always start with prologues. That’s certainly something to take note of!

  • Georgette Overton

    Comparing a work in progress is like comparing one human being to another. Both are complex and have their own unique viewpoint. My characters talk to me and tell me their story which I try to relay the best way I can. This article (and so many others I read) help the budding author to avoid the pitfalls we can inadvertently fall into. Thank you for your unwavering help !!

  • Good advice. Hoping I win the book for more great tips.

  • K. Hules

    Love the tip about reading debut novels from the last TWO years. That will definitely help me narrow down my reading list. Thanks Mr. Sambuchino!

  • Coral Jenrette

    I was just working on comparisons for my query – thanks for the timely advice!

  • Alecia

    That’s what I love about Chuck, he states the obvious, so even when you haven’t done your homework, you can still “pass the class” if you are wise enough to take heed.

  • I’m struggling with finding a good comparison for my first novel that I’m submitting (often). I love your suggestion of finding a good debut author within the past two years. I think I’ll even set up a google alert to help me get a good list going.

  • dkeymel

    I think I need to change my query letter. I used one of the above. I’m still learning. Thanks.

  • Sherri Stoner

    Great suggestions. I am a MG writer and Lemony Snicket’s new series reminds me of my favorite Strunk & White rule: Use fewer words.

  • Your hook must come from your heart completing a simple sentence that makes the gent smile thinking I must send for this one.

  • cara

    Hi Chuck, thank you for putting this information out there. Its very succinct, much so that i can even see the ‘eye-rolls’ and hear heavy sighs of the agents as you put those quoted comparisons out there 🙂

  • Shannon Amborn

    Would you have a link to the article about recommended word count for debut novels?

  • Many interesting comments to your helpful article. Do you think it wise to compare your novel to two different works or genres?

  • Steve Lowe

    I’m afraid I cannot agree more with Barbara Warne, above, about too much modern fiction being ‘cyberpunk/noir’ in nature, with nothing but ‘anti-heroes’. And even worse than that, is the fact that too many writing guides actually try to encourage us all to write even more like that. Is the entire modern reading public utterly cynical or what? As Barbara says, no hero needs to be perfect, but they still ought to be heroes, dammit!

  • Steve Lowe

    I’d also have to agree with S W Hammond, above, about the rather curious attitude of any putatively creative industry which seeks to over-emphasise ‘trends/fashions’ etc. as a model for new authors to follow. I’d be tempted to suggest that such a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach in a field supposedly encouraging new voices amounts to an oxymoron. But I’ll simply defer to Hanif Kureishi (in The Times’ list of ’50 greatest British writers since 1945′) who once said that: “New authors should break the rules”. Of course, that advice may not actually help anybody to get published in today’s rather opaque publishing environment, but it might just result in novels with rather more artistic integrity… and perhaps even more long-lasting appeal.

    After all, as several other people, above, point out, many classic novels from the past would almost certainly never get published today; yet they nevertheless remain classics, and still sell in appreciable numbers. Now I wonder why that might be if (as the publishing industry would seemingly have us believe) the modern reading public will only accept a certain narrow modern style…? There are as many different writing styles as there are published authors (or at least, I think there used to be). And one way of being original, inventive or just plain creative isn’t necessarily to do something that’s never been done before; it could actually be to do what used to be done decades ago, just as Barbara Warne is trying to do… 🙂

  • Cyndi Struven

    Wish I had read this before I submitted a manuscript with a prologue!

    I really appreciate the advice of reading books in my genre which you have been published in the last two years by debut authors. As a librarian I have tended to read the classics written for children. Though students are required to read many of these, they may not necessarily enjoy them!

  • Nice piece of writing to uplift the doubtful mind of a writer out there. Personally comparing my works with others makes me doubt my creative acumen. Mostly, the page counting has made me put a stop on a novel I am working on. Just like you rightly said Chuck, rather than comparing ones work with others; one should read more of the debut authors and seek for Correction not Comparison.

  • Steve Lowe

    Okay. On the general point of the advice being given/seconded above, here’s the problem I have with the logic/consistency of the argument: On the one hand, new writers are being urged *not* to try to emulate the writing/style of the most successful contemporary authors in the world. Yet on the other, we *are* apparently being urged instead to emulate the latest debut novelists – who may or may not have any success in their writing career. Now I really do wonder in which other field of human endeavor such a paradox of advice would be so universally given by the establishment (and apparently, so eagerly accepted by those seeking to join 🙂 I don’t know about anyone else, here, but that smacks of a dictate along the lines of: ‘Don’t write as we write; write as we say!’

    But then, of course, although such advice seems to be so freely dished-out by those on the ‘publishing’ side of the equation, that’s not actually the case on the side of those who have already carved-out a successful writing career of their own. For one example, see Hanif Kureishi (quoted above) who said: “New authors should break the rules.” For another, see the comments of Lee Child (who I believe has had a measure of success)on the Writers’ Digest website, in the article: “Tell don’t show; why most ‘writing rules’ are wrong.”

    Now, here’s the paradox: If the most successful authors in the world today not only ignore the so-called ‘writing rules’ but urge all aspiring authors to do the same, then why would it be that the publishing establishment go out of their way to argue the opposite? Why, it begins to look like they may actually not want most aspiring authors to get published in the first place, or indeed subsequently to enjoy the same level of commercial success as authors who (apparently) ‘break the rules’. In which case, the advice of the ‘publishing’ half of the literary community (as opposed to the ‘authorial’ half) begins to look rather more like sabotage than ‘helpful advice’. But then, being trained as a scientist (rather than an artist) I was always taught to see the world for what it really is, according to the evidence, rather than to believe anybody else’s preferred interpretation which may only be predicated upon opinions/disinformation/propaganda etc.

    After all, if most aspiring authors can be persuaded to write like the less successful debut novelists out there, rather than the best-selling ones, then it’s much easier for publishers, editors, agents to dismiss them into the ‘slush/returns-piles’ and get on with their real work instead. Many in the publishing establishment continue to protest that they really are: ‘Desperately searching for the next big thing!’ However, I think the evidence might suggest that by giving advice like that above, they’re limiting their chances of success (and, of course, of everyone else 🙂

    • Chuck’s advice is – quite unfortunately — sound. It is sound, not because it is artistically valid, but because he writes truths that we would be wise to accept.

      The evidence for the prudence of Chuck’s advice is that he has discovered this from agents and editors who now use this rule to help clear likely rejects from their desks in a time-efficient manner. Sad, but true. What evidence exists for his advice not being artistically valid?

      There are no consumer surveys or any items of evidence to show that readers are tired of or otherwise eschew dream sequence openers; likewise prologues. There exists no such evidence upon which agents or editors can base rules against these, though every element and technique in a novel must certainly have a good reason for use.

      My 1998 novel opened with a prologue and dream sequence. Between then 2000, it sold about 2,000 hardcovers at $25 and 2,100 softcovers at $10 – with one $1,500 wholesale ad, no internet support, just two radio interviews and seven tabling events. After expenses, my tax returns how $37,00 profit over three years, yet this is inadequate to change a career or gain the attention of marketing giants.

      Below is more detailed evidence that prologues and opening dream sequences can be reader-grabbing. Keep in mind that readers check front matter and chapter beginnings when they consider buying an unknown author’s work; art, too, can get them to pick it up and read back-cover descriptions and then front matter. I watched this and heard store managers describe witnessing this buying behavior. So a prologue and opening dream sequence can make or break an impulse buy.

      For my novel, I received about 300 instances of consumer feedback over the years. I also received feedback from about 50 professionals, including five best-selling authors, two well-known agents I had, the Senior Editor for Tor (Ed Gleason) and a movie effects wizard/director movie great (Stan Winston). This all resulted in much useful & eventually implemented criticism of pace and point of view. But there were ZERO admonitions to lose the prologue (one criticizes a few elements in it) or to lose/relocate the dream sequence. Indeed the dream sequence, though relocate-able, is essential from a literary standpoint. This is because the protagonist is influenced through twenty years of dreams and the spiritual thriller aspects that many applauded were furthered by the sequence. Tom Clancy gave some helpful advice, mainly to make the protagonist more likable & less a curmudgeon; he felt that the prologue enticed and that the dream sequence was gripping. One self-declared expert agent at a panel event recently declared my sequence to actually be copied from action video games… The sequence was written before such games were invented and she was ignorant of the fact that dodging danger is a perfectly valid art sequence that DOES grab readers; such sequences are in video games because of this; they are not in my sequence because it is some attempt to emulate video game action.

      Where did these two “never do this” rules come from, if editors and agents hold it so rigidly? I heard from Chuck at an event and from a few agents at multiple literary workshops that they have read too many poorly executed dream sequences and prologues by novices. It is natural that such a hard-and-fast rule constraining art should develop, much as an author might compare it to “Never paint clouds in landscapes because dealers and agents reject it as filler.” But, the fact remains that, artfully executed and emotionally effective prologues and opening dream sequences ARE acceptable and enjoyed by demanding readers; the rule against these is a new phenomenon in literary history and is not based upon reader surveys or marketing studies.

      My self-publishing decision was unwise, taking the novel from Tor/Gleason before a decision was made and alienating my agent at The Literary Group International (word to the wise). Now, it cannot lose that stigma. But, I do know from readers themselves and others that the prologue and the sequence contributed to impulse buys of readers. Fact. The only answer, for my novel, is to either drop the project or self-publish with more financial resources and better marketing. I wrestle with that decision, but at least I understand what caused the impulse buys.

  • It’s so tempting to compare to a movie. I only wish I could compare my work to Brandon Sanderson. Will anyone believe me? Thanks for the excellent advice.

  • Russ trautwig

    Currently removing the dream sequence that I had recently inserted into the beginning of my next manuscript. Thank you!

  • Thank you Chuck, we are always afraid of the wrong first pages, I had read many “how to” books, and your tips are the Best.

  • Steve Lowe

    Thanks to Dan for that contribution – most illuminating to see yet more from a published author’s perspective. Which was badly needed to help shed light on the sometimes opaque (dare I even suggest ‘sclerotic’) behavior of the publishing community. However, it seems to me that the reason which several agents apparently gave for the above two ‘never do rules’ (about prologues & dream-sequences) could apply equally well to absolutely *any* technique/writing-style. That is, it’s not advisable to ‘poorly execute’ anything in a novel 🙂

    Perhaps, instead of concocting a whole series of what are, as Dan points out, quite modern ‘writing rules’ about what *not* to include in a novel it might have been more productive for all concerned if the publishing establishment had tried giving rather more positive advice about what they consider *ought* to be included. But as it stands, the advice in general seems to be pretty much of a one-way-street of prohibitions; which – solely from a grammatical/punctuational/lexical perspective have the effect of denying the use of practically half the English language to new authors!

    Once you add up all the rules currently in vogue, about us no longer being permitted to use: adjectives, adverbs, dialogue tags (other than ‘said’), semi colons etc. you wonder what on earth has happened to the richness of expression that once existed within the English-speaking world, which once had the largest vocabulary in history to play with.

    Every piece of ‘don’t do’ advice to new authors (especially when it clearly does not apply to the most successful published writers) is deeply divisive & demoralizing & seems hardly conducive to producing ‘the next big thing’. Perhaps such ‘rules’ would be better worded as more constructive advice on how to use any particular writing elements well, rather than simply issuing a blanket-decree not to try. After all, it’s surely just as easy/likely for editors/agents to take a dislike to an opening page which does *not* contain a prologue/dream-sequence as one that does. In fact, considering that (presumably) more people’s novels fall into the former category, then, statistically, we could suggest that more novels get rejected which do *not* contain one… And that would be yet another paradox to consider in all of this 🙂

  • Well, Steve, you and I do lament such constraints; rightly so. But, One cannot deny that Chuck does do his readership a favor by alerting them to the existence of these rules. The “don’ts” are fewer in number and perhaps reject signals to agents and editors, and the “do’s are far more numerous and complex in how they can work as art. Chuck also notes in other articles and presentations, by the way, that non-fictions tend to be far more profitable as self-published works than fictions. One reason is because a how-to or like n-f is searched out to help readers deal with a specific problem. A personal example: I recently purchased two WordPress how-to books had had scan time to shop; it did not matter that they were self-published, only that they addressed the issues I needed solved. It is likely rare when a reader seeks out a novel on genetic weapons of mass destructions that is simultaneously driven by the only prophecy (the physical resurrection of humankind) held more-or-less in common among all of the world’s religions (my novel). But I will decry one thing about agents that appears to be arrogance or dismissive impatience: Recently, an agent who did not know that my novel was first published in 1998 and actually was unique as to this plot had words to this effect about it: “Dan, my random read of one page tells me you can write well. But there is no such thing as a new story line. In fact, I rejected a genetic weapons tale just recently because it — and yours — were copied from a 2012 novel by Graham Brown.” I found it interesting that she would actually make such an accusation, obviously based upon the assumption that my novel was more recent and that a relatively unknown author must have borrowed a story line. I researched this and found that the book to which this presumptuous agent referred was The Eden Prophecy: A Thriller. New York, NY: Bantam. I then looked in my notes from 1997. Graham Brown is on my 1997 list of authors who received from me that year a solicitation to endorse my soon-to-be-published manuscript. By the way, the “never do” rules we’ve been discussing did not exist in 1997. Borrowing story lines, loosely, is not plagiarism; no “cause of action”, but SOMEONE felt my storyline had merit enough to use a version of it in his novel, and one agent had her expertise and attitude placed in question.

  • Hmm. Perhaps I should take time to edit my blog posts for typos and poor wording, as I meticulously do for my articles and other writing! Argh! Perhaps you’re thinking of a word that rhymes with “oofus” and starts with a “d”.

  • Thank You! Please leave us more valuable information like this post. I really need that book: How to Get a Literary Agent. I am a debut author who likes to read in other genres.
    And My first book is spiritual. I like to read science fiction, Do it Yourself and crime books. I want to get my book published with a retainer, I realize this almost never happens but I want to try that first. My book has occult tendencies (like using the spiritual eye in meditation and how to meditate) in it. Many people don’t know how to meditate and I have been taught how to meditate by a long time meditator. I realize a lot of people think that meditation is a waste of time and effort but if done correctly it is far from a waste of time. The Buddhist and Hindu religions have meditation to reach Nirvana and Samadhi, a blissful state. Bliss is even higher than happiness. This is the state most of us want to achieve in our lives. Hindus do not worship idols, they worship God. I am stating that as a fact because I am a member of Self Realization Fellowship which is a teaching of Hinduism and Christianity mixed and I have been a member for 53 years. Lets talk peace among the various religions. Om, peace and amen.

    • Know the agent. Know the self. But you appear to seek to know the greatest One, and that is surely the key.

      It is not speech which we should want to know: We should know the speaker. – Kaushitaki Upanishad, 3.8

      And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. – 1 Kings 19.11-12

  • Steve Lowe

    Oh sure, Dan; Chuck is right to warn everyone (who isn’t aware) of this particular ‘rule’ (among so many. many other). But that doesn’t change the fact (as you’ve ably helped demonstrate, yourself) that the rule itself is in fact A.) Unevidenced as to its literary validity, B.) Entirely arbitrary, C.) Has only existed for a couple of decades maybe & D.)Contradicts what successful authors do in fact use in their own works. In short, I don’t know how the publishing establishment can get away with using such rules in general and nor do I understand why new authors continue to tolerate such ‘rules’ without protesting (as you and I have) that – despite what may appear to be the consensus – this particular ‘Emperor’ is, well, ‘buck nekid’! 🙂 Not that I’m personally troubled by the ‘don’t use prologues/dream-sequences’ rule at all, as I don’t use either anyway; but I still take offence on behalf of others at seeing everyone else being told not to use them.

    I guess what I am inciting is a general ‘revolution’ against the many such dictates (in particular, the ones about ‘don’t use this adjective/adverb/dialogue-tag etc.’) which, in other times & places, might be equated with 1930s Fascism or 1950s McCarthyism. Well it’s true: both those doctrines sought to smother freedom of artistic expression with their ‘book-burnings’ & ‘witch-hunts’. These days, however, there’s no need for those in the ‘establishment’ to burn any books or blacklist any screen-writers. All they have to do is erect a series of wholly fictitious, illogical, arbitrary, unevidenced ‘rules’ with which all debut novelists are supposed to comply, in order to make it virtually impossible to write the kind of story one might like to write in the way it feels most natural to write it. That is, with good grammar, proper punctuation & varied vocabulary. (Did you like my use of alliteration there, Dan? 🙂

    Btw, I sympathise with your experience of an agent who falsely accused you of plagiarism. I recently had a similar experience with an agent who – like yours – implied that there was no such thing as an ‘original’ story, claiming she’d read many like mine over her (many) decades of being an agent, which all claimed the originality mine did. That despite the fact that – in addition to the standard synopsis/10,000 words I’d submitted – I also sent her the preface & ‘author’s note’ postscript (which I suggested for inclusion in any published novel) that detailed at great length (18,000 words) the research which had gone into the novel in order to demonstrate that nothing like it had ever been produced before. (I don’t know – maybe she never bothered to read it 🙂 So your experience of editorial/agentive arrogance is not an isolated incident. But what else can we do? If we know that agents/editors are just going to *assume* that there’s no such thing as an ‘original’ story, then the only way we can prove otherwise is to lay out the research in front of them. But then, as they say, although you can lead a horse to water… There is far too much ‘assuming’ going on in publishing these days, and not enough paying attention to genuine detail. But then one of my favorite American proverbs is: “You should never ‘assume’, as that just makes an ‘ass’ of both ‘u’ and ‘me’ 🙂 It all comes back to my training in science, where paying attention to actual facts (and not listening to poorly evidenced ‘opinions’) is what keeps us one step above the cavemen we came from (we hope).


    • Lara B

      Amen, brother. The truth is I wouldn’t like to read books written under the narrow confines agents now insist upon, and I don’t purchase those books either. Good books by good authors have good stories. If that calls for a prologue or a dream sequence, so be it. This is why the self-publishing industry is booming. If publishers want to remain relevant, then they need to recognize that false constraints lead to bland literature.

    • We certainly have much in common, Steve. I also do appreciate your alliteration , as it points to variety and humor that doubtless characterizes your writing. This problem with agents & editors, though, is unlikely to go away, and is a major reason the self publishing has gained steam (actually, self-publishing was the norm in the last few centuries). The biggest barrier, though, is that big marketing bucks are needed to attain effective marketing reach and sell books. Best to you!

  • Steve Lowe

    Thanks Lara. Gosh, we do seem to be forming somewhat of a consensus here 🙂
    With you, me & Dan standing up to be counted, I’m getting visions of the start of the movie: ‘The Magnificent Seven’. I think I’ll defer to Dan in allowing him take the ‘Yul Brynner’ role, while I play Steve McQueen; which then allows me to paraphrase my favourite quote: “Never rode shotgun on an ‘internet forum’ before!”

    But to be serious, you can see exactly why so many people are losing patience with the publishing industry. It’s surely bad enough that (with so many aspiring authors wanting to compete to get their book into print & the understandably finite number of publishing slots available in the industry each year) 99%+ of submissions are going to be rejected form a purely logistical point-of-view. That’s perfectly understandable. But to be constantly advised (by editorial consultants, agents & creative-writing guides) that half of the words in the English language (and a portion of the punctuation which goes along with them) are now (and only in the last 20 years or less, as Dan says) ‘outlawed’, and that we won’t be considered if we use them, is monstrous. Especially when a survey of modern best-selling novels demonstrates that the (vast) majority clearly weren’t written under the constraints of such rules. I’m talking mainly about the ones like: “Don’t use adjectives, adverbs, dialogue-tags other than ‘said’ etc.” The last of which I have a particular problem with, as it seems to be aimed at dumbing-down prose by precluding a perfectly legitimate means of explaining to the reader what emotions are inside any speaker’s head & how those are being expressed in their words; only to see them replaced by the anodyne ‘said’, which tells/shows the reader absolutely nothing.

    I really don’t know what the answer is, though. Yes, self-publishing is tempting, and offers benefits of its own; but I understand it’s also hard work (and expensive). Though the basic problem remains that the publishing industry is just not living up to its own billing of: ‘Genuinely searching for the next big thing’. How can they be if they employ arbitrary ‘rules’ which actually *prevent* us from writing like ‘the current big thing’? 🙂

    Steve (Up the revolution!) Lowe

    • Yep. Ditto. My only contribution at this point is this: Rather few consumers look to determine whether a book is self published as they peruse its front matter, jacket or sample openings. Store managers and chain buyers do — perhaps with a like attitude to what we’ve discussed here — and this is just as much of a screening out process. Though technology enables better headway in self-publishing than could be made ten or twenty years ago, a self-publisher still needs to reach consumers, and that takes big dollars. One day, here in Charlotte, I may take that plunge.

  • David K.

    OK. Fine Chuck. However the problem which exists in the academic world of funding graduate resarch projects also exists in the world of publishing. If you are doing something truly original, no one will touch you. Why? Because it Can Not be compared to another’s work. The funder( and in our case the publishing house) sees it as too risky. That means the work must be sold soley on the merits of itself. Next problem is
    that a true master piece can only be recognized by the eyes of a literary genius.
    Agents a sales people First, and literary critics Second. How many great manuscripts are collecting dust and mold lying on the bottm of a cardboard box , in the back of the closet?? After many failer attemts to get published, the author finally says, ” to Hail with it” and has to get on with the chores of living. A body can only live o live n beans and ramen noodles so long.

    david in carolina

  • JSD

    I recently had to depart from my long-standing book club in order to make space in my reading time to do exactly what was recommended here…and, in fact, I’ve started a NEW book club that will focus on new books in my genre, especially debut writers. I figure, not only will I be helped by reading them, but I’ll help the writers by exposing them to more readers!

  • Rob Munro

    I spent quite an amount of time combing the shelves for similar material to my own first novel, and ended up reading either well-established authors, or in the most part a lot of rubbish, which was heartening in one way (“I can write better than that!”), and disheartening in another (“my book will get lost in amongst the noise and bright lights!”).

    All your advice is sound and reasonable and logical and I’m glad to say pretty much what I’ve adhered to along the way. A beta reader has pointed out some fundamental structural problems in my first novel which I wasn’t objective enough to recognise, and mercifully those problems will be duly remedied. I’m glad to say the process of (constructive) criticism was something I positively embraced rather than rejected.

    Yes, I have read works I aspire to match, but I’m also being realistic about the fact mine is a first novel; I’m in a country whose arts are currently being deliberately sabotaged; and I lack resources to support anything I create to the degree a first novel deserves or requires.

    That doesn’t mean I give up. It just makes me more determined.

    • One must ask how the “rubbish” you identified on book store shelves got to be there. See my experience offered in my reply to Rosanne Frank. Sorry, btw, for my own failure to edit!

  • Ok- so now I’m re-thinking the use of a prologue since I haven’t had any bites yet. It’s a good solid scene but perhaps I need to start by immersing my reader right away. This could be the ticket. Thanks!

    • Rosanne, keep the Prologue in your files and let an agent know it is available. This prohibition will not last long; it’s just a trend among agents & editors that has no basis in marketing common sense. To assist their decision making, readers do read prologues, front matter and cover material. This includes prologues. Good prologues give then a sense of the scope and overarching themes addressed in the novel; sometimes good prologues merely have a scene (you indicated opting for that version of a prologue) that is also an enticement that simultaneously provides insight into the overall story line. A dream in Chapter one can also do great things, provided it is actually needed from a literary standpoint. Sadly, there exists the same flaw there in current trends of agent/editor practice & attitude. So, if a dream is really important early on, write it, file it, and offer it as an option… but never present it w/o invitation along with a submission. If you feel that either or both of these literary devices is essential, then bite the bullet and self-publish; there are ways to make that risky undertaking more likely to succeed, even for fiction. Best of luck to you even if you get a blindly trend-enslaved (or impresario) agent.

    • By the way, Chuck other caution is also wise: “Beware comparing your work to the current books of a bestselling author.” But my experience and that of other authors with whom I have spoken, is that there is another, very sad, reason why it is good advice: Many agents gain a sort of satisfaction from being the source of the judgement that X novel submission is “like” Y famous work, initially as a derision to place the author in her/place relative to the agent’s presumed literary expertise; later to impress the editor with the marketability that new novel X may command. My deceased dear friend, Bob Silverman was an assistant to several high and mighty editors and shared an article with me one day. I can find it in my files, if you like, and only recall the thrust: A well-known best selling author began to doubt the competence of both agents and editors. He retitled and changed the author name (an unknown name) of one of his own best-selling novels that was under a decade old, and submitted as an experiment it to his own and a dozen other publishers. This was in the 1980s, when un-agented novels were sometimes accepted. Every one rejected his novel, a novel that had actually earned millions of dollars. Let me know if you want the article; I will dig it out if you like. My own agent has never sold a novel, only scripts. But he has similar tales about the film/TV world: Execs know that they have less need to be competent to ID quality & originality than they do to be internal salesmen pitching to have marketing resources applied, a cynical view that the public will buy what is enticingly advertised and quality is important but quite secondary since the public would not recognize good art anyway. In conclusion, while Chuck’s advice is sound, the reasons why it is sound argue strongly for saving up and self-publishing (provided you are confident of quality and methods of marketing).

  • I enjoy reading your work because it is down to business, easy to follow, with a dash of humor to keep it real. I seek out things that you have written because I trust that it will be honest, practical, and up to date. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s funny.

  • Steve Lowe

    Hi again Dan,

    Yes, please do look out that article if you can find it in your files.

    I’ve heard a few stories about how authors have exposed the critical ability of agents/ editors in similar ways (which ought to lead us all to a lack of confidence in the way our writing is being judged 🙂

    Here in the UK, we used to have a satirical magazine called: ‘Punch’. ~ 25 years ago, they ran an article where they’d gone ‘undercover’ to expose the shortcomings of the publishing industry. They sent in excerpts from famous best-selling ‘classic’ novels to agents & publishers (back in the day when you could still do that) under assumed (i.e. non-famous) names. All of which got rejected out of hand… except an excerpt from ‘Mein Kampf’ by a certain unknown young author. Apparently, the agent in that case replied: “This shows promise, we must have lunch!”

    As I recall, only one of the editors/agents approached recognized any of the famous works being passed-off as debut novels, when sent an excerpt from Samuel Beckett.
    Their reply was in verse:

    “It can be very sage, to plage the written page,
    But plaging Beckett can only wreck it!”

    I’m only working from memory, here, (like you) but I do believe I might still have that treasured copy of Punch magazine somewhere in my attic… As I also recall, the image on the cover was of The Fuhrer sat at a typewriter, twiddling his moustache, with the headline: ‘Adolf Hitler… young writer of the year!’

    Steve 🙂

    • Steve, I just finished searching my old files for the article that Bob Silverman gave me. No luck with that; sorry. However, I did discover something that might help you and other writers who have very old manuscripts that were represented years ago: I found rejection letters and summaries conveyed from several of my previous agents. I implemented all advice / heeded all negative feedback over the years. But a few of my agents were very enthusiastic about representing THE PLEISTOCENE REDEMPTION, but got shot down for some valid reasons of writing style, etc.. What dawned on me was that these agents might again represent this work, now that the manuscript is improved. So, here is the idea I’d like to share: For old, rejected works: find agent or editor rejection letters that had actual feedback, screen these for enthusiasm, then resubmit specifically noting the improvements and reminding the agency of the reason for the first rejection (as well as the original enthusiasm). This might result in representation & resubmission to a publisher.

      • Great advice! Sadly all my rejection slips are general in nature and largely express regret at the inability of the literary agent to represent me at the time. I’ve had to go through beta readers to determine what deficiencies or mistakes I’ve made in order to fix what I’m not objective enough to see myself, and once that’s done I’ll re-submit to the same agency. With enough rejections, even in the light of beta reader feedback, I’ll possibly consider self-publishing.

        • Good luck. Be careful with the self-publishing decision. Success is not cheap. I had success, but it took money, time (the opportunity cost relative to my usual work was very expensive, as was the out-of-pocket). One can earn a profit, but is profit the objective? I felt my novel had a mission beyond that and even beyond a new career. It was a subtly Catholic perspective book, designed to challenge readers to think about God and their response.

          This is why, if you go to Amazon today, you will see a bi-modal reader scoring: people loved it or hated it. The publishing profession, normally anti-Catholic, would not tolerate a novel that challenged readers to consider questions like, “If you cannot find the moment when a fetus becomes human, can you ethically find the moment just prior when it can be destroyed without the act being at least manslaughter?” Since that is an ethics-only way to approach the issue, pro-abortion rights folks are unable to dismiss the implication with the usual dismissal of religion. I observed a real chafe there, and at other issues. You should have been at some of the panel discussions and reading group events!

          Indeed, two things enraged some SFWA members when they realized that 10 TPR was self published, and 2) it subtly honored traditional spiritual & social values The self-published issue seemed to predominate as a reason (at least as stated) for hate of my novel and me personally, exacerbated by TPR getting so very far in the Nebula competition. TPR made the final voting round of three rounds for the 1998 Nebula award (a strong performance considering there were 126 novels in the running). SFWA members were only beginning to realize that it was self-published, enraged so many that one author named Rob Sawyer from Canada warned me that he read on a particular SF fan blog that A.L. Sirois and James MacDonald were making statements that were tantamount to soliciting people to post bad reader reviews. It is interesting that MacDonald had his own prehistoric-related novel coning out shortly after the voting (not in time for that 1998 Nebula). Chaffing at its spiritual aspects could be read between the lines and explicitly in blogs of SFWA members and other forums.

          The first two versions of my novel did need improvement, and I must agree with many literary and style criticisms of the first two editions of the three (the Kindle, a 3rd ed is much better). But the bad reviews, along with the glowing ones remain.

          I did get interesting advice — some readers may benefit by this — from an old agent/attorney, Paul Levine, in a phone conversation just yesterday: He advised shortening the 122,000 word length to 80,000 and changing the title (losing the accolades it accrued). He stated that the literary quality I had reached with this 20-year-spanning novel may well call for that many words, but he could not sell it that way.

          If I take his advice, he will consider re-representing it; I am seriously considering it. The drawback to me is not so much the work involved but this: I have to dumb it down to a large extent in order to get it represented and sold. Of course, per Chuck’s embarrassing-to-publishing-professionals (but sound) advice, I’d also have to lose the prologue and relocate the dream sequence, also for non-literary art reasons. I got similar advice re length from retired best-seller Charles Wilson, but he noted that SF length limits can be 100,000 words, and 110,000 if I go in with him for a total rewrite. Considering all of these options, including thumbing my nose at the royalty publishing world and committing tens of thousands to a serious self-publishing effort. Given my experience from 1997 forward, I lean toward self-publishing because of the personality types one must get past or work with to be royalty published (and fear of the project being given half-hearted support anyway from a publisher). But, as Pooh Bear said when he tried to get & decide on an idea, “Think, think, think.”

          Hey, I have an idea! I will buy a lottery ticket today, win big, and start my own publishing house — focused on similarly frustrated authors. It will touts to the public that it will not demand artificial word length short-changing of its readers and will provide fresh and real value instead of asinine literary rules for new authors. Indeed, it will eschew all professionals who are literary incompetents, starting with agents & editors who think that “asinine” has anything to do with a butt. Anybody lend me a buck for a Mega Millions ticket?

  • Steve Lowe

    Well Dan, your final paragraph encapsulates all that’s wrong with the modern publishing ‘establishment’. Though as far as ‘asinine literary rules for new authors’ are concerned the connection between those who would insist on such rules and a ‘butt’ might not be too far from the truth…

    Btw, I’m first in line to sign up as one of your debut authors 🙂


    P.S. A couple of agents who recently replied to me didn’t so much say there was anything wrong with my story as point out that my particular genre is very crowded at the moment, and that the ‘big names’ take up a lot of space. Which, of course, is the fundamental problem we all share these days in trying to break into an already saturated market. So if I can offer anyone else here any advice, it would be to try to appear unique in some way, in order to ‘stand out from the crowd’.

    My method is to send all the agents I approach attachments detailing the background & research that my story evolved from – on top of the vanilla ‘1st 10,000 words & a 1 page synopsis’. This is specifically to deal with a problem which both Dan & I experienced, of agents pretending to know that: “There is no such thing as an ‘original’ story.” I send them in the form of a suggested foreword/preface (as opposed to ‘prologue’), a map of the locations in the story & a postscript for possible inclusion in any published novel. This is actually duplicating the format of many of the current best-selling (as opposed to ‘debut’) novels in my genre. Effectively, I’m trying to present them with an image of the finished product – but I don’t know how many have actually bothered to read any of the additional attachments (I’m sure some have not).

    But my idea was to follow the advice they give to any start-up/expanding business when going to the bank to ask for a loan: ‘You have to hit the bank-manager with all the answers (about your business-plan) *before* they even have time to ask you the questions. That way, they can see you are serious about your business and that you can envision its future growth.’ I just thought it would save the agents time having to ask me: 1.) How I came up with such an ‘original’ story in the first place, and: 2.) What was the evidence/research that substantiated it – which would save both the agent/publisher from any future claim of either plagiarism, lack of research or factual inaccuracy in my story.

    I had originally considered simply writing a factual/textbook on the subject, but was advised I’d reach a much wider readership – plus earn a lot more money – by putting it into the form of a novel. But of course, I had no idea, back then, that the modern ‘traditional’ publishing industry would prove quite so perverse in some of its entry requirements. 🙂


Leave a Reply