Saturday, February 6, 2021

Eight Hard Truths about Agents and Two Suggestions


I’ve been privy to some recent conversations regarding agents and the querying process and thought it would be a good time to put together a post that addresses some misperceptions I see fairly frequently.

Having spent time reading and editing submissions for a literary agent (two-and-a-half years and 1,200+ submissions) as well as being a writer myself, I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what happens on both sides of this equation. One of the reasons I became a submissions (or slush pile) reader in the first place was so I could gain a better perspective on what agents actually see from querying writers as well as have insight on my competition for an agent’s attention.

 

So here are eight hard truths about agents, querying, and what really goes on after you hit send.

 

1.     The slush pile is an agent’s LOWEST priority.

This is a basic truth I consistently see writers ignore or of which they are completely unaware. An agent’s highest priority—and the thing that takes up most of their time—is representing the work of their existing clients, and their to do list reflects that. Prepping manuscripts to go out on submission, networking with editors, conferring with clients on existing contracts and the issues that arise during the publishing process, reading and editing manuscripts, managing the submission process and client commitments…the list is endless, but all of it is what pays the bills for an agent.

The slush pile, on the other hand, represents the greatest amount of work with the least amount of return. It’s time consuming and never ending. Agents are not kidding when they talk about their inboxes – they’re jam packed with queries. That’s especially true right now because so many people have had a LOT of extra time to write. Most agents have seen a significant spike in the number of queries they receive.

 

Which leads me to the next hard truth…

 2.     The slush pile odds are astronomical—like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

This is a hard truth for both agents and writers. In the two-and-a-half years I read submissions for the literary agent, I probably recommended she read about 5% of the 1,200 queries (the agency’s guidelines requested a query letter, synopsis, and the first fifty manuscript pages). That’s roughly 60 queries. Out of that number, she requested full manuscripts from maybe a dozen, and out of that, she only offered representation to ONE author.

Before you think I was cutting some worthy contenders out of the running, let me add, as a writer, my bias was ALWAYS to give the manuscript the benefit of the doubt. I usually read more pages than most agents would and gave the agent recommendations about what was working and what wasn’t if the first fifty pages seemed promising. She used my edit notes a number of times to give feedback to writers on requested manuscripts or queries that showed promise but weren’t quite right for her. So a 5% read recommendation rate is actually generous, and leads me to the next truth about the slush pile.

 3.     The vast majority of the manuscripts being queried aren’t ready.

I know. Believe me, I really do know. After working on a manuscript for years, especially as you get close to the end and feel as if you will rip your eyes out if you have to read it one more time, you want to believe it’s finished and ready to go. But the very, very hard truth of the slush pile is that at least 80% of what I read was simply not ready to be queried. Most of this number was made up of manuscripts that were exceptionally raw and unpolished. As harsh as this sounds, writing is one of those activities that people often think they can do without practice or study. No one thinks they can play pro sports the first time they try to play the game, and yet they apply a different metric to writing without recognizing that publication by a traditional publishing house is very much like playing in the major leagues.

 Of the remaining 20% of the queries, I recommended the agent read roughly 5%, as I said before. That 15% in between were the ones that almost made it, but needed another round of revision to be truly polished and fully realized (see my posts on revision if you want more of my thoughts on what a fully-realized novel looks like) or needed more editing than an agent can provide.

 

Which brings me to hard truth number four.

 4.     An agent’s job is to sell a manuscript—they’re not your critique partner or editor and don’t owe you feedback.

Yes, agents provide feedback or work with clients to edit and refine their manuscript prior to sending it out on submission, but it’s not their job to provide that kind of feedback for your query letter or pages. Sometimes, they simply can’t give you a solid reason for passing other than the manuscript isn’t right for them, and the sheer volume of queries (remember, the slush pile is the lowest priority and has the least amount of return for the time it takes to complete the task) means that they often don’t have the time to spend thinking about it too hard. I can honestly say, I sometimes spent more time coming up with reasons I was recommending the agent pass than I did reading the manuscript because, while it was obvious within a page it wasn’t what the agent could sell, it took time to articulate why.

 An agent’s job is to sell publication rights to publishers (they don’t actually sell the manuscript, they actually sell the rights to publish the manuscript under specified criteria). If you want feedback, find a writing group, find critique partners and beta readers, hire a developmental editor. If an agent does give you real, specific, concrete and actionable feedback, rejoice! that means you’re on the right track.

 5.     Yes! Agents really do read queries that fast.

This is probably one of the most disheartening, frustrating hard truths about agents. They really can assess your query and pages that quickly, and no, they’re not being lazy.

 Agents know what they can and can’t sell and will only read to the point where they know they can’t sell something. Sometimes that happens in the opening line of the query (why it’s important to know your genres and subgenres), sometimes it’s on the first manuscript page. I personally know one agent who draws a line in the margin every time something ticks his “not for me” meter. Three lines, and he’s done. It doesn’t matter if he’s on the tenth page, the first, or even in the first paragraph. Three ticks, and he passes. This same agent often responds within an hour of receiving a query. And we’ve all received insta-rejects that make us wonder if our email even got opened. Doesn't mean they didn't, it just means that you probably targeted an agent who can't sell what you wrote.


Which also doesn't mean there's something wrong with your book. Agents do miss out on terrific manuscripts because of the sheer volume of work they're trying to get through, or because the writer revised after they queried a certain number of agents, or because the agent simply doesn't know the right editor to show the work to. There are lots of reasons agents pass on work that went on to have incredible critical and financial success. Every agent has a story about the bestseller that got away because they didn’t recognize the potential or they were too slow responding or they didn't have the right editorial contacts to make the sale. 

 

But the truth is, agents do not use AI to scan for keywords like companies do with resumes; they do not throw darts at queries to decide which ones they’ll read; they do not do any of the hundred things I’ve heard writers complain must be happening to their queries. What they do do is read until they know they can’t sell the project, reject it, and move on to the next query.

6.     This is true even if an agent has requested a full or partial manuscript.

I’m setting this hard truth on it’s own because I often hear writers complain about how quickly a requested full or partial garnered a rejection. “There’s no way they read the entire book!” You’re right. They might not have read the entire thing because they are only reading until the point they know they can’t sell it. And, yes, it’s frustrating when they give you feedback that makes it clear they didn’t read the whole thing, but what that feedback tells you (if you hear it a couple of times) is something is missing from the beginning of your book.

 7.     Your query letter does not sell your manuscript.

I’m probably going to get push back on this one, but…No matter what an agent or other writers tell you, your query letter does not get an agent to sign you. The only thing that gets an agent to offer representation is having a project they believe they can sell, and that means having a solid manuscript, with a dynamic premise, that hits the publishing marketplace at the right time (I often tell my clients, if Jane Austen were a debut writer in 2021 and submitted Pride and Prejudice as it was written in 1813, she’d most likely garner a slew of rejections for the simple reason that the contemporary marketplace has different demands for a 21st century manuscript).

A query letter has two jobs:

  • ·       Succinctly present your book’s premise and its central conflict/problem in a dynamic way that catches the agent’s attention.
  • ·       NOT give the agent reasons to reject before they read your pages.

Q   Query letters often act as a red flag to agents for the problems they’re going to encounter in the manuscript. Long query/long manuscript usually means the book needs extensive editing or the premise isn’t fully developed. Vague summary of the book can mean that the writer hasn’t figured out what the story is really about yet. A query heavy on the set up probably means the story doesn’t really get going until after fifty to a hundred pages.

The query letter often acts as a mirror for the manuscript (which is why it is a valuable exercise to write a good query letter). After reading those 1,200+ queries, I can tell you I NEVER saw a fantastic query letter paired with a mediocre manuscript. I saw lots of so-so queries and so-so pages. I also saw so-so letters with really good pages.

 

In 1,200+ query letters, almost every single one of them was an indication of what I would find in the pages. What this means is that I read the pages with the idea that I was looking for reasons to recommend the agent pass. If the query was good and solid, the book generally was too.

 

I might do an entire blog post on this topic, but for right now, I’ll say the reason I think the query letter has become so dominant in conversations (both from writers and agents) is that it is something agents can give feedback on quickly and easily. “Query letters that worked” is a really popular topic in interviews and workshop sessions with agents. Invariably, though, what I see in the query letters most often chosen by agents to discuss as "effective" wasn’t so much the letter that made the agent request the manuscript. Often it was the referral from an existing client or someone in the publishing industry, the writer’s extensive platform or special expertise, or a prestigious award or fellowship the writer had received that would have tipped the balance even if the query were written in crayon on a napkin.

 

Last hard truth…

 8.     You do not have a relationship with an agent simply because you queried them or they requested your manuscript.

I frequently see writers act as if an agent owes them something because the writer has queried or received a full request, and I do understand the temptation. Writers invest a lot of time and energy into developing a list of agents to query. We research them, stalk them a little bit on social media, read their clients’ work, and develop specific and realistic reasons for querying a particular agent. We become invested in thinking that a particular agent is THE ONE, and it sometimes feels as if we know them. When the agent doesn’t reciprocate, writers sometimes feel frustrated even though the agent is just doing their job. Even a revise and resubmit doesn’t mean you have a relationship, it just means you’ve got plans to go on a second date.

The point at which you have a relationship with an agent is when they sign you. Up until that point, don’t take anything personally. And, yes, I know exactly how difficult that is.

 

And now the two suggestions about how to increase your slush pile odds:

 1.     Write the best manuscript you can. Edit. Revise and rewrite. Give it to beta readers and critique partners and ask them, specifically, to tell you places where they wanted to put the manuscript down. They don’ t need to tell you why (if they can, great), but the idea is to get an idea of where an agent will do the same.

 2.     Know your genre and the genres an agent represents. Just because someone is an agent, doesn’t mean they represent any old kind of book. They specialize, sometimes only representing subgenres of a particular genre so that, even if romance is a category the represent, they may specialize in Regency era romance. This is why, to the best of your ability, do your research and look at the specific types of books an agent has sold.

 3.     (a bonus suggestion): Follow an agent’s submission guidelines to the best of your ability. Every agent or agency has their own guidelines. Follow them. Exactly as they are written. Want to play in the major leagues? This is the first step in demonstrating that you are a professional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Is It Done Yet - Part 7: What the Reader Needs


This is the seventh and final installment of my series aimed at helping writers know when their novel is ready to query. It's based on the presentation I made at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April of 2020, "Is It Done Yet? How to Know When Your Novel is Ready to Query"

 

Part 7 – Stages of Revision

 

Stage 4: What the Reader Needs

 

This final stage — what the reader needs — is often the most neglected phase of the revision process. Writers often talk about keeping an ideal reader in the back of their minds as they write, and can convincingly declare, “my audience is college-educated women, 35-50, with an interest in horticulture, literature, and astrophysics.” While that may be true, most often the reader a writer envisions during the writing process is pretty much a stand-in for themselves, and the interests of the "ideal" reader usually align closely with the subject matter of their novel.

 

This final stage of revision is not about that, though. This final stage is about asking questions of your manuscript to make sure you have allowed space for your reader — whoever your actual, living, breathing reader is — to fully experience your novel in an enjoyable way. I can almost hear some people protesting, “But I do that all the time!” as I write this. From my experience as an editor and also an avid reader and fellow writer, I’m going to say, “No, you don’t.”

 

Respect Your Future Readers

Genre

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this stage, I’m going to make a quick digression to demonstrate one of the major ways in which I see writers not taking the reader into consideration.

 

“I don’t read this genre, but I’m writing a YA/romance/fantasy/MG/science fiction/mystery/literary/thriller/spec fict/(fill-in-the-blank) novel.”

 

I have heard or read this phrase so many times over the years, and my response has always been, “Then why are you writing it?”

 

In the most basic way of taking the reader into consideration, if you do not read the genre in which you are writing, you are doing your readers a disservice. The readers of your genre DO read it. They are familiar with its tropes and stories. They have opinions about what makes a good book. They have expectations. If you fail to meet those expectations, you can expect scathing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. And, remember, agents are your readers, too. In fact, they are the reader you have to impress first, and they are extremely knowledgeable about whatever genres they represent. They have to be because they have to anticipate what an acquiring editor (the person who actually publishes the books that set reader expectations) will want to read.

 

Reading the genre in which you’re writing, becoming familiar with the pacing, structure, tropes, characters, narrative arcs, etc. is, quintessentially, an act of respect for your reader.

  

Book Length

Book length is another area where I see writers repeatedly dismiss both reader expectations and publishing conventions to justify a book that is far too long or too short. Usually, their justification is couched in terms that “the book needed to be that length.” Sometimes, that’s true, but the vast majority of the time it’s not. Those optimum word counts aren’t arbitrary.

 

The single, biggest expense in publishing a book is the production of the physical object. The more pages, the greater the cost. That’s why certain genres have “sweet spots” for book length. (You can find lots of articles about optimum word count, here’s one from Writer’s Digest. Again, those word counts have created reader expectations. While some books exceed those word counts, they’re generally not debut fiction. Even George RR Martin wouldn’t have been able to sell his 1,500 page tomes if he didn’t have the sales record and fan base to justify the expense of publishing those books.


On the other side of the spectrum, because of the cost of production, book costs don't vary that much even for a short book. So, it's difficult to justify why the reader should pay basically the same amount for a 200-page book as they do for a 350-page one. In addition, small books don't look as impressive on bookstore shelves.  

 

That’s How I Wanted To Write It

This is another thing I’ve heard from writers over the years, both irl and online. All I’m going to say is, this is about what the writer needs, not the reader. If you’re justifying something in your book because that’s how you wanted to write it, you need to stop and ask yourself some basic questions from the reader’s point of view.

 

While it should go without saying, I’m going to say it any way: if you are writing for the purpose of publication — either traditional or self-published — you have to take the reader into consideration if you want your books to sell.

 

Basic Questions for Stage 4: What the Reader Needs

 

The overarching questions at stage four are: what journey do you want the reader to take from the beginning of your novel to the end? What kind of journey do you want it to be? What do you want the reader to experience? And where do you want them to end up? Do you want them to walk away with a deeper understanding of a particular time period and way of life? Do you want them to gain insight or change their perceptions of an issue? Do you want them to have been entertained? Do you want them crying?

 

The Macroscopic Level

On a macroscopic level, are you directing your reader’s attention to the things that are important? Take a look at how you introduce characters, scenes, and significant moments in the plot. Do you give them the space and attention that indicates their importance to the reader and tells the reader to pay attention? This doesn’t necessarily mean big paragraphs or lengthy descriptions or “Dialogue. That. Screams, HEY! This is important!”

 

Instead, it’s a matter of making sure the reader’s attention is where you want it to be. I recently edited a manuscript in which the writer buried the most important moments within scenes that were focused on something else entirely (for example: the important moment was about the MC forgetting to return a library book, but the MC remembers the book just as they get into a minor car accident – the car accident grabs the reader’s attention because it’s dramatic, but it didn’t have any ramifications for the narrative arc, whereas the book did). When they’d refer back to that moment several pages later, I had no idea what they were talking about and had to go back.

 

I like to use the idea of portraiture to explain what I mean about giving important moments their space. In multi-subject portraits, artists use frames — either literal frames like doorways or windows, or figurative frames like the arc of tree branches or the line of a path on the ground — to give each subject their own space. It makes it easier for the eye to concentrate on the individual elements and keeps complex images from becoming a jumbled mess. The artist directs the viewer in how to see the work.

 

Writers have it a little easier because words and sentences are linear. A reader can only be where the writer wants them to be. In a movie, a character walks into a room and the viewer sees the whole room (Oh, look! There’s an elephant statue on the desk. I love elephants!), but in a written work (even if your reader is listening to the audio version), the ONLY thing the reader encounters are those things the writer deems important enough to point out. Those elephants? In the movie, they could be meaningless props. In a book, I better be calling attention to them because they relate to the narrative in some way or else they’re wasting the reader’s time and energy. 


In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron talks about the neuroscience behind the reader's experience. Our brains, Cron says, require lots of energy. When we're asked to remember something, it requires energy that could be directed elsewhere. Asking readers to remember a vast number of details or minor characters without there being a reason for their inclusion in the book means you're asking the reader to expend energy on something that has no value. 

 

In my editing, I end up talking about real estate vs payoff to a significant number of clients. What this means is paying attention to how much time you spend on an element of the book, and how much payoff it has for the reader. If you’re writing a mystery and spend sixty page setting up the first clue (which is usually not a major reveal, just the thing that kicks the investigation off or leads to another, more significant clue), that’s a lot of space given over to something that is of relatively minor importance. Conversely, if you’re writing a romance and gloss over the initial meeting of your main couple without a sentence that shows the reader the attraction between them while there’s something happening between two other characters that takes up ten page, you haven’t directed the reader toward the most important moment.


This is very true of the opening pages of a novel. Those first ten or so pages are the most valuable real estate of your entire book. Don't spend them on ANYTHING that isn't 100% relevant to the forward movement of the novel. This includes pages of backstory, introducing multiple characters the reader will never see again, detailed descriptions of the landscape (unless the reader's detailed understanding of the landscape is necessary in that moment in the book). Basically, the questions you need to ask of any detail or element of your book are: Does the reader need to know this? Does the reader need to know this right now? And does the reader need this much information in order to move forward with the story?

 

It’s a delicate balance. My best advice for figuring out real estate vs payoff is to pay attention when you read books in your genre to how other writers work this balance, when it’s effective and when it isn’t, and analyze what they do — how much space to they give to various elements of the story? How do they indicate something is important to the reader? When something doesn’t work for you, figure out why. Are there too many details that don’t mean anything? Too much space for too little payoff? Is there little to no indication of how important something will be later on in the book?

 

The Microscopic Level

This, finally, is the place to do what most people think of when they think about revision: polish your language.

 

Once you have your story figured out and your narrative arc humming along, the book has a central unifying force and all elements are working in service to it, and you’ve consider what information the reader needs and when they need it, it’s finally time to take a look at the words you’re using to tell your story.

 

If you can do it, line editors are an amazing investment. Not only do you have someone look at your book on the sentence level, but, when you get those edits back, it forces you to go through your manuscript at the sentence level. Even if you don’t have the resources, it’s essential to do this final read-through and edit because it’s where you find your repetitions, overused phrases, and excess words. I highly recommend Smart Edit which is a nifty program that will show you the number of times you use particular words or phrases, find clich├ęs and common errors (for example: homophonic typos such as “there” instead of “they’re”).

 

As you read, ask yourself what words or phrases can you eliminate or condense because they’re not adding to the reader’s sense of the scene. An example from my own novel, currently in final edits before proofreading:

He turned away from the dance floor and headed back to the bar, which was already three-deep with people trying to get the attention of the two bartenders, who were making drinks as fast as they could.

In this sentence, the final clause is unnecessary. Of course, the bartenders are making drinks as fast as they could because the bar is busy. It also isn’t germane to the scene and adds an unnecessary detail. In addition, the “three-deep” and “two bartenders” is jarring. My final take on the sentence:

He turned away from the dance floor and headed back to the bar, which was already three-deep with people trying to get the attention of the bartenders.

Do you miss the words I cut? Does it lessen your sense of how crowded the bar is? Or does the shorter sentence have pretty much the same impact as its longer version?

 

This is the point in the revision process where it finally makes sense to polish your prose, and, once that’s complete, you should be ready to move forward in the querying process.

 

And so, there we have it. The stages of revision from your initial draft to fully-realized novel to polished manuscript. If you’re starting the query process, here’s my blogpost about creating your list of agents to query.

 

If you’d like to receive a copy of my revision flow chart, please contact me at diane.glaz@gmail.com

 

If you'd like more information about my editing services, please visit my website or contact me through email, Facebook, Twitter or IG. I specialize in literary, upmarket, commercial, YA, contemporary women's, erotica, and fantasy, and have a diverse and international client base whose work has appeared on the NY Times best seller lists and Amazon top seller lists.


Twitter: @DeeGeeWriter
IG: diane.glaz


(If you follow me on IG, be forewarned: you'll see a lot of pictures of my Airedales and whisky)


Here are the links for the all the parts of this series: 

Part 1: The goal of a fully-realized novel

Part 2: Know your genre

Part 3: What the writer needs - Telling yourself the story

Part 4: What the story needs - Telling the story

Part 5: What the story (also) needs - Telling the real story

Part 6: Destabilizing and inciting incidents

Part 7: What the reader needs

 

 

 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Is It Done Yet - Part 6: Destabilizing and Inciting Incidents


This is the sixth installment aimed at helping writers know when their novel is ready to query. The series is based on the presentation I made at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April of this year, "Is It Done Yet? How to Know When Your Novel is Ready to Query"

Is it Done Yet - Part 6: Destabilizing and Inciting Incidents

As I was getting ready to move to the final stage of revision, What the Reader Needs, it occurred to me that I haven’t touched on a very important aspect of What the Story Needs: The destabilizing and inciting incidents. So I’m going to do that now before moving on to the final stage of getting your manuscript ready to query.

These two moments are absolutely crucial for getting your novel moving forward, and, surprisingly, a lot of the manuscripts I edit miss them, minimize them, conflate them, or have them occur too late. If you’ve ever gotten comments that your story starts in the wrong place, chances are good you’ve misplaced either the destabilizing incident or the inciting incident.

So what are they?

The Destabilizing Incident
The destabilizing incident, as the name implies, is the thing that unbalances your main character’s world. It’s Frodo Baggins when Bilbo disappears from his birthday party in Lord of the Rings. It’s the renting of Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice. It’s the discovery of the direwolf pups – one for each of the Stark children – in Game of Thrones. It’s Athena telling Telemachus he needs to leave Ithaca and visit his father’s friends in the Odyssey. It’s the moment the main character’s life is interrupted by something that breaks them out of their regular routine or pattern.

Though destabilizing incidents need to be present in the story, not all of them occur onstage. In the famous opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the destabilizing incident has already occurred – the wife’s discovery of Count Oblonsky’s affair with the children’s governess – three days prior to the opening of the novel. The moment in which Dolly discovers the infidelity is given to the reader in retrospect, but the focus is on the upheaval (the destabilization) this discovery creates from the first sentence.

Whether it occurs onstage or off, the destabilizing incident almost always occurs within the first few pages, even better (for contemporary fiction) if it occurs on page one. I’ve referred before to the opening pages of The Hunger Games and urge you to take a look at it.

Collins opens the book with about 300 words of Katniss Everdeen’s regular life – the poverty, Katniss’s cold life-or-death pragmatism, the restrictions of the society in which she lives. There’s also the sense of something unsettling about to occur. In the very first paragraph, which is three sentences long, Collins references the bad dreams Katniss’s sister has been having: “Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.” Collins doesn’t tell you what “the reaping” is until later, but, importantly, she conveys the sense this thing makes this day different even as Katniss goes about her regular routine of meeting Gale in the forest to hunt.

An effective destabilizing incident really has two components – the ordinary world the main character exists in, and the event that upends the ordinary world.
The destabilizing incident is important to both the story and the reader.

For the story, it’s important because it sets the main character up for the inciting incident. The main character’s world is no longer routine, their awareness is heightened, possibly things no longer fit together the way they used to making the main character restless and ready for change.

For the reader, the ordinary world is the baseline that allows the reader to see the changes that occur in the main character over the course of the story. If the reader doesn’t know what’s normal or routine for the main character (not just in their external world, but also their internal one of reactions, emotions, decision making, etc.), then the reader has no understanding of the effect of the events on the main character.

The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is that event, without which, nothing else in the story can occur.

In the Lord of the Rings, it’s Frodo picking up the One Ring (though you could also argue, it’s Bilbo giving up the Ring before he leaves the Shire). In Pride and Prejudice, it’s Elizabeth Bennett dancing with Mr. Darcy. In Game of Thrones, it’s Robert Baratheon’s arrival at Winterfell and Bran’s fall from the tower. In the Odyssey, it’s Hermes telling Calypso to let Odysseus go home. In Anna Karenina, it’s the titular character’s arrival, having shared her journey from St. Petersburg with Vronsky’s mother. And, in the Hunger Games, it’s when Prim is selected as tribute.

While the destabilizing incident can occur offstage and still be effective, the inciting incident needs to occur onstage where the reader can experience it (notice I say “experience” it – in contemporary fiction, it’s most effective if this moment is portrayed in scene, shown to the reader, rather than the reader being told about it in exposition).

The function of the inciting incident is to generate the energy needed to propel the main character (and the reader) into the story. Think of these two moments in your story as if the destabilizing incident lights the fuse on a stick of dynamite and the inciting incident is when the dynamite explodes.

But, wait, you say, your novel isn’t a thriller with explosive pacing, it’s literary fiction. Even so, even when the pacing of the novel and its focus is on more introspective and quite moments, the inciting incident is still the moment that propels the main character forward into the rest of the story. Austen’s pyrotechnics come from the verbal sparring that occurs between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy while they dance, setting up Elizabeth’s disdain for the recalcitrant Mr. Darcy and their subsequent interactions, including her willingness to believe Wickham’s story about Darcy cheating him of his birthright. The essential aspect of the inciting incident is that, without it, nothing else happens in the book, and that holds true no matter the book’s genre.

Typically, the inciting incident occurs somewhere around the 10-15% mark (in an 85,000 word novel, that would put it between 8,500 and 12,750 words or approximately between pages 25 and 40), though I’ve seen it effectively placed as late as page 50 in longer works. What’s absolutely essential is that the destabilizing incident creates tension for the reader, draws them forward with the awareness that something is about to change, and the inciting incident releases that tension in a way the propels the reader and the story forward. Both events need to be meaningful, organic to the central organizing principle of the story, and relate to the story’s climactic moment and ultimate resolution.

One of the reasons I chose to include this post in a series focused on getting your manuscript ready to query is because these two moments in your novel occur at the very beginning, the pages most likely to be read by an agent. Without them, the reader (whether it's an agent, editor, or someone who bought your book) doesn't have the sense of a story getting ready to be told. They're crucial moments, in the early pages of your novel, that can make the difference between engaging a reader and having the reader say, "No thanks."

And with that, I promise, the next installment of this series will deal with the final stage of revision: What the Reader Needs. See you next time!

If you'd like to hear more about how to use destabilizing and inciting incidents to create a dynamic opening for your novel, I'm speaking on this topic at the Thoughtful Book Festival on Friday, August 28, 2020. Please go HERE to reserve your tickets. 


If you’d like to receive a copy of my revision flow chart, please contact me at: diane.glaz@gmail.com

If you'd like more information about my editing services, please visit my website or contact me through email, Facebook, Twitter, or IG. I specialize in literary, upmarket, commercial, YA, contemporary women's, erotica, and fantasy, and have a diverse and international client base whose work has appeared on the NY Times best seller lists and Amazon top seller lists.

Twitter: @DeeGeeWriter
IG: diane.glaz
(If you follow me on IG, be forewarned: you'll see a lot of pictures of my Airedales and whisky)

Here are the links for the all the parts of this series: 

Part 1: The goal of a fully-realized novel

Part 2: Know your genre

Part 3: What the writer needs - Telling yourself the story

Part 4: What the story needs - Telling the story

Part 5: What the story (also) needs - Telling the real story

Part 6: Destabilizing and inciting incidents

Part 7: What the reader needs