The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

The worst ways to begin your novel
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This column is excerpted from Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books.

No one reads more prospective novel beginnings than literary agents.

They’re the ones on the front lines, sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they’re the ones who can tell us which Chapter One approaches are overused and cliché, as well as which techniques just plain don’t work.

Below find a smattering of feedback from experienced literary agents on what they hate to see the first pages of a writer’s submission. Avoid these problems and tighten your submission!

False beginnings

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

In science fiction

“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Prologues

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Exposition and description

“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”
Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress — with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves — sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Starting too slowly

“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”
Dan Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter One in which nothing happens.”
Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media

In crime fiction

“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

In fantasy

“Cliché openings in fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is).”
Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary

Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my editing services. Thanks!

Voice

“I know this may sound obvious, but too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how.”
Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.”
Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”
Daniel Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. There are far better ways in Chapter One to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.”
Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency

In romance

“In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom — and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon — not admiring the view.”
Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

In a Christian novel

“A rape scene in a Christian novel in the first chapter.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Characters and backstory

“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No ‘flowing, wind-swept golden locks’; no ‘eyes as blue as the sky’; no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’ ”
Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them — it’s in their DNA.”
Adam Chromy, Movable Type Management

“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”
Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”
Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary

Other TWL Guest Posts by Chuck Sambuchino:

  1. What Does a Literary Agent Want to See When They Google You?

  2. Tips for Pitching a Literary Agent at a Writers’ Conference

  3. Querying Literary Agents: Your Top 9 Questions Answered
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Chuck Sambuchino is a staffer at Writer’s Digest Books, best-selling humor book author, and freelance query/synopsis editor. He is the editor of the Guide to Literary Agents and the au... .

Writer's Digest | @chucksambuchino

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. The quotes from agents are so useful.

    I recently removed several chapters of pure back story from the beginning of my manuscript. I had to write those chapters in order to learn about the characters, but they didn’t need to be in the book.

    Thanks again,

    Sarah

    • I got an idea from my super creative 10 year old and started writing one day. I’m not a writer, but I like what I wrote and think I want to try to make a real novel out of it. The problem is that all I have is a prologue. I don’t know where to go from here. I got online today for the purpose of trying to learn and see how to make this work. This feedback from professionals has been very helpful. I am glad that there are tools like this out there. Obviously, I need a lot of help.

      • I wrote a rather long short story once that was critiqued by a very well-known SF/F writer. She said it felt like it needed to be a novel.

        Perhaps your prologue is really a mini-outline of the book that really wants to be written.

      • I’ve written only one book, but I can tell you what was very helpful for me. A book called “Take Your Characters to Dinner” by Laurel A. Yourke gave me very detailed instruction on how to write a good novel. I also enjoyed reading “Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. There a many, many other books you could read, but I found these two books to be very simple to read and follow. They even give examples and writing exercises. Good luck with your novel; you can do it.

      • I’m also writing a book. Not written any prologue because I don’t like them. Reached 67 pages yet and am continuing. I’m boosting with ideas but will also need help and would be glad to help others too.

    • How is this for an opening line. ” Literary Agents are becoming more and more unnecessary but a enormous amount of time is spent trying to please those who probably can’t sell you work anyway…”

  2. I am not published yet, but I hope to be in the future. I agree with some of these points, but there are others where I feel that the person making these comments is just … childish.

    A story that starts in a dream state, waking up to a point where basically everything you just read didn’t really happen. 1:) Such a thing can show the mental state of the character in question. Some may think it bogus, but dreams can have meanings dependent on the person having the dream. — If this makes you feel cheated, then my response to that is simply that’s your point of view. This does not make it a horrible way to start a novel. I’ve read plenty of novels with dream state scenes and I was not turned off. In fact, much of my current work focuses on dream states and flashbacks and mental reverie showing how my main character is warring within himself in regards to the happenings of his life. It portrays how disturbed and jaded he is. It can get repetitive, as with all things, but I won’t be filling the story with them. 2:) My point of view, I think it’s just fickle to want to put a book down for this reason.

    Laundry list description of character’s physical appearance. I agree and disagree with this one. Yes, it can get tedious some times, and take away from the story, but I personally like to envision the world and the characters in my mind as I read. I like to picture the story not just read it. I’ll never state specific definitions, such as heart-shaped face (Because faces are round. The head is round, the face is on the head, therefore the face is round.) or of Empire waists and Tight sleeves. My descriptions involve naming the type of clothing and a general description of how it fits. (i.e. Baggy pants) That’s it, and only when it is necessary. Sometimes, what the main character is dressed in is entirely unimportant.

    Perfection in character description. Let me just say, there are people with wind-swept hair, people with eyes as blue as the sky, but should I approach this from a different view? Why is wind-swept hair perfect? Why is blue eyes perfect? I’m a nature lover. Blonde hair is not my thing. I prefer redheads and brunettes, and one of my main characters has black hair and green eyes. That aside, perfection is unbelievable in my opinion as well, however, that does not mean that we should then label what perfection is. Some people pay attention to their hair, and take care of it till it is wind-swept. I do not consider this a symbol of perfect. In fact, someone who pays that much attention to their hair is foolish in my mind. Too much free time on their hands to keep from worrying about the real problems in life. And willowy figures? That has always seemed to me as a statement of how fragile they are; weak and breakable. No two people are exactly alike in appearance and just as that is true so is it true that no two people’s preferences are the same. While one person may regard wind-swept blonde hair, willowy figure, and sky blue eyes as perfection, there are some of us that are not inclined to view the “Master Race” as perfect. I’m Italian and everyone in my Italian family has dark hair. I have the lightest color hair in the family, and I have brown hair (because my mother’s side of the family isn’t Italian, and she’s a blonde). And no one in the family is willowy. Most are, in fact, more oaky.

    • I…okay I don’t really care about the other stuff you said…but…but are you serious? I hope you know that there are MANY different face shapes. I’m an artist. I study this kind of thing. That is LITERALLY the most RIDICULOUS thing I have read all night and I surf Tumblr regularly. Open up an anatomy book sometime dude. Or even an ART book. Study more. You obviously need it.

      • Yeah, that and the head is NOT round. It’s egg shaped. Plus some other things you said bugged me, but the whole face and head are round bit is just wrong.

        • Kenneth Morelli:
          Setting aside the fact that some people disagree with you on face shapes, I found your reply to be very comforting. We’re not picture artists, we’re book writers. I’m currently writing a book called Planet Greenhouse. It’s about a woman, Sandra, who takes it upon herself to correct the actions of a popular marine amusement park, BlueOcean. From the beginning, she refuses to tell her best friend what she’s doing, at first for fear of hurting Lynn and later for fear of being caught lying. Her husband Mike expresses his adamant disagreement with the protest, and when she doesn’t listen to him, he begins to feel more and more betrayed. The story starts with a prologue, where Sandra has already been arrested for disturbing the peace. She wakes up from a dream where the police caught her, and even though the story hasn’t started yet, we can see that she has plenty of internal conflict roiling in her mind over what she’s done. (See? The dream serves a purpose!) Through her interactions with Mike, we can see just how upset she is, and soon the story moves on to a few days in the past, which is actually her telling Mike her perspective on everything that’s happened. Three of my associates have read what I have so far and say it rallies with the other good reads they’ve read.

          When I first read this post, I thought, “Oh no, will no one like my story?” And then I saw all the different comments on this page…including yours, which basically speaks my mind. Perhaps there are recommended and not-recommended techniques, and the agents should definitely be taken seriously, but when it comes down it it, your book is *your* book, written about what comes out of *your* mind, and in the end it’s all about personal preference.

          Furthermore, Pucha and Michele, I don’t think artistic accuracy is the point here. It’s important to create a believable world, but do you really think it matters to the plot whether the character’s face is shaped like a heart or an egg? Personally, face shape description just distracts me from the rest of the plot. It’s unnecessary.

          • Unless you are a professional writer, you shouldn’t think too much about whether other people will like your story. Write what you like yourself instead. If you like your story, that should be good enough. Invariably, there will be more people with interests like yours.

            Don’t put too much stock in a random quote pulled out of context. The criticism from someone that actually read what you wrote – and legitimately tried to enjoy it – is worth a hundred times more.

          • Well said!

    • mrvanessarose says:

      Here’s the thing: I think there are exceptions to every rule if what you have to offer is legitimate. What I took away from the agent comments were that if you’re going for these approaches to be gimmicky, to try too hard or to perform, don’t bother. If you have a creative way to implement these things or if they’re imperative to your story and you make them unique to your overall approach, don’t let some comments stop you. Also remember not to get defensive. They’re just offering their professional opinion because they read a lot more aspiring novels than I imagine you do. They know what’s been done over and over again and truthfully, do you want to be doing something that’s been done a million times? That’s up to you, of course. Your writing is yours, don’t worry so much.

    • Mr Vanesarearose I do get where u are coming from. For every rule they list I’m sure there are exceptions. However, I think a lot of it is not necessarily saying that its a sign of poor writing to break these rolls, but more that it’s been done so many times, even if you feel it’s right for the story you run the risk of looking boring overdone or the kiss of death “cliche”. Gasp! Lol.

      The truth is when literary agents look at the work of a first time writer they are looking for reasons to reject the work not accept it. So don’t give them any. They see a lot of crap. These are good tips of what not to do so that your work doesn’t get thrown on to the scrap heap before it’s ever given a chance.

    • I’m sure you’ve read plenty of times each of these things has been done, and done well. But, not being an agent, I can only imagine how bad the stories they’ve read really were.

      Think again about laundry list descriptions. Every word of description slows the story; there’s no reason that the story should spend an entire paragraph slowing when you could put each detail with a different action. Sure, everybody likes to visualize the story, but there are details, and there’s trivia.

      If the characters ignore a detail, then shouldn’t we?

    • The point with the laundry list descriptions was not that descriptions are bad, but that dumping a load of description all at once as soon as you meet a character is bad. By all means have flowing hair on a character, but perhaps have him or her brush it back as a mannerism. Yes, have them wearing specific types of clothing, but mention that as you get to know the character and make it worth knowing (For the first time since we’d met, she wasn’t wearing one of those over sized band t-shirts her dad had left her. I knew then that today…). Spreading the description throughout a piece lets you constantly build on the character and make them seem more complex and realistic. An info dump of description as soon as you meet them either leaves them hanging from then on or will be reiterated throughout the story. Either way it’s superfluous.

      Having said that, the laundry list of detail should be somewhere for you to go through. You can mark off things you’ve mentioned then and see bits of description that still can be fit into the book somewhere. It’s also handy to make sure you don’t mention they have green eyes in one spot and then blue in another. Just don’t put that info dump into the actual book, is all they’re saying.

    • There’s a Henry James quote: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Using dreams in fiction is dangerous since readers generally interpret them as the writer trying to force-feed the reader a metaphor. You know, how everyone cares about their own dreams but not others?

      Anyway. Rules can be bent, but some rules can make you a better writer. I have to say though that I love that you say you hope to be published, and then proceed to complain about publishing advice. Not everything is written in stone, but take heed the experiences of those who have read a ton of manuscripts. They know how to ID good writing.

    • Well said

  3. Excellent post Chuck!
    I appreciate the valuable information straight from the pro’s.

  4. You know what? I had my doubts about this article, but after reading it — I agree with everything they said, because it turns me off too.
    — Let me add my own personal pet peeve — The book begins on a now, but they go back to tell the story. So basically they tell you where it’s going to end before they tell the story. I hate that.

    • I would hate that too. But keep in mind that sometimes authors write a prologue that takes place only halfway through the actual story. Three of my associates read what I have so far (ten chapters and a prologue) of Planet Greenhouse, and one of them told me the mystery of how the story got to the point of the prologue had them riveted. Another suggested I pull a variation of the “surprise ending.” Surprise, readers: you thought you knew the ending but that’s only half of the story! That’s my current plan, since that’s definitely the direction the story’s taking.

  5. I always get a kick when I read some agent or another decry prologues. Maybe someone should inform Clive Cussler…he of over one hundred and forty million novels sold…that prologues are not a good idea. Thanks for the laugh.

    • That’s because accomplished writers can pull off a great many things that the vast majority of writers–even some fine, well-published writers–cannot.

      • quickstride says:

        It’s not about being accomplished. It’s about the prologue being appropriate, as Cussler’s are…

    • There is a place for a prologue. However, most people haven’t a clue how to write one. You can tell this because they go on for pages. A good prologue is never more than one or two pages long, it provides something vital to the overall story that doesn’t fit into the regular story line and is always tightly written.

      • Neal Sayatovich says:

        I agree, mine is only 1.5 pages. I think they have a purpose, but people drone on and on with stuff that has no bearing in the story later.

      • quickstride says:

        Cussler’s prologues are often pages and pages long….and they WORK…because they are appropriate to the story…THAT is the important thing

    • quickstride says:

      Well said, but slightly misleading in my opinion.

      Cussler is one of my all time favourite authors. He writes genuinely enjoyable stories and Dirk Pitt is one of the best protagonists I’ve seen, but the fact that he uses prologues cannot be used to justify them.

      He needs prologues in his books, and NOT short ones. His stories are based on historical events and his prologues are never set in the present. They create a sense of what to expect from the rest of the novel, without telling you anything about what is going to happen in it. It is a masterful way of keeping the reader guessing, specifically because you are nearly constantly trying to figure out where the prologue is going to fit in.

      It makes you pay attention to the details and specifically to the dialogue, which I believe is one of the more entertaining parts of his work.

      Overall though, I think prologues are dangerous if not handled really well and I honestly believe that very few people handle them very well, regardless of the length of the prologue.

      It’s not about the word count of the prologue, it’s about WHY it’s being written…

      Just my two cents…

      Thanks for reading.

      • Yes. All you people talking about prologues, I’m addressing you:
        It’s not quantity, it’s quality. A lot of authors don’t know how to use quality in their prologues so they go for quantity, and that’s what makes us think good prologues need to be short. No! I’ve written quarter-page prologues and four-page prologues and have received high praise for both! Just saying, it’s possible!

    • Gene in L.A. says:

      One of the first things we were told in a class on musical composition was, learn the rules so well that they come automatically, then you’ll know when and how they can successfully be broken.

  6. I’ve seen many a published author commit these sins; James Patterson especially, but he can get away with it!

  7. Brian McGlynn says:

    I’ve been writing since my teens — I’m 64 now — and have made a great living at it. All of it journalism, much of it the legit kind and some corporate. I’m just starting on the road to fiction-writing land. Much of what Chuck wrote was familiar to me because I’ve been saying it for years to myself and my staff members. Yes, there are times when you can break the rules — color outside the lines, if you will — but the one basic truth is that a good story is a good story, and most are best told if the writer gets the heck out of the way and lets the story tell itself. Once you take the ego and personal angst/drama out of the process it’s really not that hard. The problem, of course, is finding a good story and a good editor.

    • Barbarann K. Ayars says:

      Oh my Goodness, Amen! Writing in the zone, when the left and right brain shake hands and agree to write the story after they’ve elbowed me out of the way, is when the works shines, when it’s fun, not painful, and I’ve allowed the little star of the story to own her own life right there on the page. That’s when the purple, the flowery, the over-written falls away and leaves me alone to just write it real. Nirvana. And rare.

  8. I was just procrastinating my to do list of the day.
    1. Remove the boring backstory from chapter one.

    Thanks for the motivation!

  9. Can I add one? Giving me 15 different character names in the first chapter to try to keep track of. Tip, only give characters that matter a name. The waiter doesn’t have to have a name. Just call him the waiter if the reader is never going to read about him again. It’s ok. You won’t hurt his feelings.

  10. This is fantastic material! I totally loved it!

  11. Looking at the Christian Novel advice I am floored. Do people really do that?

    • Yep. Agents and editors just protect the literary public from them. Kind of like silent superheroes keeping out of the limelight; we will never know the deep debt we owe them.

      • Greta B. says:

        Ha ha, love it! But, that is so true! I can’t imagine how much horror they have spared us from… I just hope that my novel isn’t one of those horrors… I am writing a historical fiction novel on a topic I love but, it is very hard to write… I am not quite sure if that is a good thing or not.

        • Sometimes the hardest books become the most brilliant. I think it’s a sign that your mind is working on a realistically complex story. Just take it through plenty of your own edits when it’s done.

  12. K.E. Wright says:

    I think there’s a lot of good advice in this :))

    I’m an avid reader and I’ll just close a book and forget it for most of those reasons, though it concerns me that books can still get published with some of these!

    I do disagree about the prologue bit, though. I don’t use them often, but I usually try to set up something big in the story with a prologue –on one occasion, the death scene of a character that ends up motivating the rest of the story. I think that if they are written properly, a prologue can be incredibly important to a story’s development.

    It’s also good to see some of the genre clichés laid out, so I know some missteps to avoid.

    Thanks for some awesome advice, guys.

  13. Mike McLeod says:

    http://Www.wattpad.com/mikemcleod3

    This is my first story its called Game On
    I would appreciate some feedback … I think I made none of the above mistakes

  14. Our editors concur 100%. We see every one of these things, often. Many of these types of openings can be, and have been, done well (with the likely exception of the excessive adjectivia). But they are nearly impossible to do well by any but the most accomplished, experienced writer. If you’re Dickens, you can do pretty much anything you want. If you’re not, follow this advice!

    • But how do you know that you’re not reading a future genius, like Dickens, who may be an exception, if you stop at the word, “prologue”?

      • Three ways an editor knows they are “not reading a future genius, like Dickens, who may be an exception”:
        1. They already read the query or proposal that came with this excerpt, or they trust the agent that sent it to them, or they met the author in person at a conference and were impressed. Every submission arrives with some kind of context which increases or decreases an editor’s patience as they approach the manuscript.
        2. They understand WHY the bad beginnings don’t work. Detecting the existence of a prologue doesn’t trip an “Auto-Reject” circuit in their mind, though it might elicit a sigh.
        3. They love good stories. That’s why they are in this business. So if your prologue or your laundry-list-description is actually good, interesting, draws them in, then they will keep reading. At first this will be automatic, but editors are generally quite aware of WHY they like what they read. They will be conscious of how your clever prologue differs from the previous hundred info-dumps that crossed their desk that morning.. and why THEIR AUDIENCE will enjoy it too. Remember, editors are like designated shoppers, always looking for stuff their clientele will enjoy.

        Trust me, most editors have read more exceptions to these complaints than you or I ever have. They will recognize another exception when they see it. But if a certain kind of opening fails way way WAY more often than it succeeds, that’s when it occurs to them “Hey, I ought to mention this in my response to Chuck’s question about bad ways to start a story.”

        • I just think, by and large, that agents are missing a plethora of good novels. There is a lot of crap being published, some make money, others don’t, but they are published on some obscure whim. There shouldn’t be any hard or soft rules to getting an author to print. I feel that it is much like the old Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd movie, “Trading Places.” What if these literary agents actually stepped down from their “high horse” and took a chance on some hard working, struggling writers who aren’t polished? Would the literary world end? No, it might breathe a breath of fresh air into it. And the new authors’ ending might be better than any of Stephen King’s ending.

          • Joe, I agree with you: I was reading out loud to my daughter and found myself editing it on the fly as I spoke, to make the prose better. (I do NOT normally do that.) Most traditional publishers responded to shrinking profit margins by laying off significant portions of their editorial staff, and the results are obvious.

            And yes, there are many “proud and lofty” agents out there who don’t remember what it was like to pitch their own work, and have no empathy for writers who don’t meet their arcane criteria for potential greatness.

            The good news is that there are a lot of “humble and hungry” agents out there who dream of finding a diamond in the rough and sticking with that unpolished but hardworking writer all the way through their increasingly-successful career. I know several of them personally, and they can attest that there are many more like them out there.

            The trick, for both author and agent (or acquisition-editor– remember all the small publishers and independent presses out there who are desperate to grow their booklists), is to find one another. That’s where WritersDigest’s agent-related stuff comes in: those “meet-the-agent” emails are like personal classified ads: “Journeyman Agent Seeks Bright Cheery Chick-Lit Authors” or “Fantasy/SF Agent, Branching Out to Mystery and Suspense: Seeks Unpublished Talent with a Jagged Edge to your Darkness”

            Even better: writers’ conferences. “High-horse” agents go to be admired. More relationally-intelligent agents (and acquisition editors) go fishing for new authors. Meet as many of them as you can. They WANT to have coffee with you during the break, or find your manuscript/proposal in their conference critique pile. Conferences are their best hope to meet new talent. You won’t fit everyone’s bill, but you could be just the author that one of them is looking for.

          • Great stuff there. Thank you for the encouraging advice.

            Sometimes I get very jealous of all the American Idol/Voice/America’s Got Talent shows or the countless cooking channels/shows that give unknowns a chance to display their talents, and there’s nothing like that for writers. I often wonder where Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson or even Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Pickler, non-winners, would be without A.I. there to give them a chance. Would they still be struggling at their day jobs and hitting karaoke clubs at night?

            Anyway, thanks, again, for the advice. Much appreciated.

          • …and there’s always self-publishing. I’m a writing coach as well as a freelance editor; I’d be happy to help you do this successfully.

            (In all fairness, I must say that James Scott Bell, Randy Ingermanson, Laura Christianson, Kathy Ide, the author of this blogpost himself, and many others that don’t come to mind, could all serve you excellently in this capacity too! Google around, you’ll find a writing & publishing coach in your city, I’m sure)

          • I totally agree. Prologues have their place. If I remember right, Tolkein went on and on with flowery descriptions. Now he’s an iconic writer. I think it’s OK to step outside the box if done the right way.

          • Amen! I wonder if people would reject tolkein today because of his use of flowery descriptive language. Having any rules: hard or soft, to determine eliminate pieces of work is bad. Judge the writing by the actual writing, not because it has broken one of the silly rules.

  15. Wow !!! So much don’ts that can fill a bucket. I wonder if established authors don’t make these mistakes.
    I like the tips, in fact I I wrote a book that began with the author waking up from sleep. I have edited that part.

    I think also apart from saying what should be avoided, we need to know what should be included.

  16. Thank you so much for this article.

  17. I’m trying my first novel…..I thought I knew what I wanted to say but every time I sit down to write my first chapter it just keeps changing! Either I get new ideas or my storyline changes….I am very frustrated. I have 17 dozen new first chapters! I got myself so confused I stopped writing. Help!

    • Michael Merillat says:

      Hi Bob,

      I understand what you mean about ideas continuously popping up. It sounds like, before you start your opening chapter, that you need to have a firm grasp of your plot (make it simple). If you are always coming up with new ideas or beginnings, perhaps you need to step back and figure out the story you wish to tell. Have you tried outlining? It can help organize your thoughts. It ends up being like a map for your novel. Or maybe you could focus on your characters. Try free writing with your characters. Put them in situations not relevant to your book and see what they do. Trust me, Bob, you are not the first writer, or the last, who has bumped into this problem. Good luck.

  18. Mike Paul Sanders says:

    Reading some of these comments by “literary agents” makes me wonder what exactly have they published. Prologues, when written well, can be extremely useful in grabbing the reader’s attention. But then who follows the rules? Look at pros Hubert Selby, Jr and Cormac McCarthy. Both have written incredible stories yet their books are a mess to try and decipher. Bother neither feel the need to add quotation marks around their characters’ lines of dialogue which gets very confusing when there’s more than one person talking. And both are masters of the compound sentences. In one passage of Requiem For A Dream, Selby goes on for nearly four pages without a single pause. It’s just “and, and, and, and, and…” My question is would these agents let a new writer get by with these same literary mistakes?

    • Mike, scroll up and see my conversation with Joe. Remember the context of this article: agents and acquisition editors have to sift through something called a “slush pile” of mostly-poor-quality submissions. Agents especially get tons of submissions, and must get through them all somehow (and quickly or they won’t have time to do anything else). So, (1) they begin to see patterns in poor-quality stuff, and (2) they begin to make “rejection” choices quickly based on those “red-flag” patterns.

      The rest of us are not agents so we don’t know what patterns of badness they are seeing these days. And we would very much like to know what those patterns are so that we don’t accidentally send up any red flags when an agent reads OUR stuff.

      So this is actually not an article about Craft or Style, per se– it’s an article about submission strategy. If it were about Style I’d jump on your band wagon! I love well-crafted cumulative syntax; I love pointing out to “short-sentence nazis” all the beautiful LONG sentences in, for instance, Hemingway’s best work.

      But that’s also the point: consider how jaded some agents must become, reading bad writing 10 to 20 hours a week, sometimes more on a work-binge… for years. Imagine how delighted they will be when they realize they are suddenly six pages into a new manuscript (when they planned to stop at the third page) and are loving the way the author uses long complex sentences, mixing them with short punchy ones, and judiciously dusting them with unexpected yet perfectly-fitted adjectives? If that happens, OF COURSE they won’t right-click-delete that one. They call Hubert Selby back and say “I think I can find a publisher for you.”

      So if you LOVE your prologue and KNOW it is masterfully crafted, fascinating, necessary to the structure of the story, well, fire away! But also know that you are taking a risk by prominently labeling it “PROLOGUE” and failing to give some justification for it in your cover letter (not “it’s so well-written!”– tell why it is important to the tone or structure of the story). And even then you are taking a risk: your cover letter had better be convincing, and every bit of your submission “well-written,” or it’s done.

      Look again at how “Leapfrog Press” sums it up:
      Our editors concur 100%. We see every one of these things, often. Many of these types of openings can be, and have been, done well (with the likely exception of the excessive adjectivia). But they are nearly impossible to do well by any but the most accomplished, experienced writer. If you’re Dickens, you can do pretty much anything you want. If you’re not, follow this advice!

      • Nic, you know I understand what you are saying. I just wish it wasn’t so. I wish agents/editors/etc. would understand that they may never find the next Dickens if they trash a piece of work as soon as they see the word “prologue.” Many of the other warning signs I agree with.

  19. Journey Niemela says:

    I do not agree on some things. I am writing a book, and it began with a dream, and I got 110% by my big brother, who is fifteen, and I am only ten. My beginning, the main charecter is being told a prophecy in the middle of math class while she is sleeping. Her name is Skylar Flame. I really like books with the main person has a strange name. She has white hair, like Elsa in Frozen, and creepy blue eys, and a kind family, who everyone loves, but her. She sticks out in a crowd. In case you are intrested in my book, her is the auther, “Journey Niemela”. And yes, this is my real name. My book is going to be called, “Belonged to the sky.” Hope you people enjoy it.

    • Hi Journey, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Nic Nelson, above, has done a great job of explaining why these suggestions are good advice for authors:

      “So if you LOVE your prologue and KNOW it is masterfully crafted, fascinating, necessary to the structure of the story, well, fire away! But also know that you are taking a risk by prominently labeling it “PROLOGUE” and failing to give some justification for it in your cover letter (not “it’s so well-written!”– tell why it is important to the tone or structure of the story).”

  20. I love this advice. I recently clipped two chapters (one of which was a prologue) from the beginning of my story for the reasons stated above. I don’t think I wasted time writing them because they were part of the process of figuring out my story, but for an agent/ reader, they aren’t necessary. Also, I think their removal lends the main characters a greater aura of mystery, which I like.

    I write YA, and one of my story-opening pet peeves in that genre is when the first chapter or two include a large pile of the main character’s reflections on how ordinary/ unattractive/ unspecial they are. It’s been done to death. I get that real teenagers have self-esteem issues, but in my experience they are RARELY as over-the-top in real life as they are in YA books. Though I’m now in my 20s, I also felt this way about YA protags when I was a teenager.

    Thanks for this article!

  21. Very good post. From a person who has had the opportunity to read a random assortment of submissions to publishers, this is excellent advice.

  22. Ade stone says:

    I had intended to use the back story of the main character at the beginning of a book I’m working on…I thought giving the reader a feel of what the protagonist had gone through would keep the reader interested and want to continue reading to find out how the protagonist ended up. I didn’t realize that was a turn off for a lot of people. I figured I would work the protagonist’s history into the plot line one way or the other. But what is blocking me now is that I have no idea what to use in the first chapter that would keep the reader interested and want to go on with the book. Any suggestions?

    • Ade: Yes! Try starting off with your inciting event.

      When you hear folks say “Jump right into the action” they usually don’t mean “Pick an action scene at random and start the story there.” (although that’s a good writing exercise! Then everything that comes BEFORE that moment on your chronological timeline you can visit later as flashback, tantalus, or exposition, and everything that comes AFTER that moment unfolds normally– punctuated by any necessary flashbacks, etc.)

      But unless you love flashbacks and do them well, it makes more sense to “jump right into the action” with the inciting event itself: the scene that sets the protagonist irrevocably along the path of the story.

      If you have a complicated story with a large cast, different “main characters” may have different inciting events: begin with the inciting event for whoever will be your main POV character.

      This is just a suggestion of course– as so many comments here emphasize, there’s plenty of room for creativity and breaking of rules, as long as you realize what you’re doing so you can concentrate on doing it well.

  23. Oh I needed this post! So far I reckon I’m doing OK with my beginning (question is, how am I faring with the rest of the novel?!?!?!?!) I do have a prologue but it’s more of a first chapter (different point of view from the rest of the book, though). May think about reworking it! Kim

  24. claudiacv says:

    I wish there were more post on what readers want/like instead of what agents like or don´t like. Maybe that would help bridge the gap between what gets published and what is really being read/bought.

    • Hi Claudia,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You might want to check out this post on in-progress publishing — it’s an interesting way to see what your audience wants to read, and refine your work in response to that: http://thewritelife.com/publish-your-book-before-its-finished/

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

    • My dear these guys must be going far. How can an agent’s will or like represent the general view. Readers are those who are in the right position to testify which story is interesting. Just see how they are contradicting each other. I guess a writing competition should be organized for them to see what they will really put out

  25. All your teachings on you like and don’t Like on characters, opening line, paragraph and all you listed you don’t like are your personal problem of taste. That’s why when an author or a writer who worked all night speaking with his or her characters, writes his main character is sleeping, an editor or agent will prefer to say the character slept. Pick a novel of 19 centuries and compare it with the dance de mot authors publish today and tell me in which of the two you see the originality of an authors’ minds speaking. Again pick two different novels from two different authors published in 2013 and tell me how many related sentences you pick in them, how many same vocabularies are in them. If the World has 10 authors, they should be able to give out to the World 10 different ideas and not the same as you are teaching authors today.
    By the way, who is in the better position to say if a story is interesting or not; readers, agents, editors or the co-authors which you are?
    This is a general problem in many areas of life. Talk of foot ball, the African born and Portuguese international who died recently made the same comments in one of his interviews: that thee is no more pure foot ball in the World today if not the scramble for money. Talk of music, how many beatings do we have in the World today and what are this musicians saying? An Elderly Nigerien musician of late memory once said: Music today is a matter of buy your computer and chose the sound system you like. Unlike in the period when musicians have to search out for the required sound and rhythm of a particular music themselves.
    The the person who said he don’t like a novel where the main character died at the end of the first page. But as an author, I might chose to begin with the end and therefore kill my main character in page one. But coming to page two, I will show you the character who died in page page one was actually sent to go and buy a coffin. You mean you won’t be anxious to read on to see what happened? So leave authors to express their feelings and not the feelings of agents. I was bored seeing all you wrote there. They are simple true lies like the chapters of the bible that contradict each other. You advise authors to copy each other or write what you want or what themselves want? You teachings are for author who are still looking for a name in the writing World. An author who wishes to have a style cannot and will never follow your advise because the author will end up editing your will instead of writing what is happening within his mind.
    As for me, I have my own style. The day I found myself a writer was the day I adopted a style. Therefore, I always begin with the end in mind. The first chapter of my story is always the last chapter of the story.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lawrence. You’re right, the comments from the agents are their opinions. Of course, writers are free to disregard them and write what works for them — to each their own! As you mention, readers are also good judges, and many self-published authors can attest to that. Best of luck with your story!

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  26. I found this article very interesting except the comments on Prologues. Generally, I don’t like them either, but that said, there are instance where they become an essential part of the story. For instance as a setup point or introduction to set the tone and setting of the story. I have written many genre ; Science-fiction, horror, mystery, fantasy, thrillers and even children’s stories and in only one instance have I found a story that just called out for a prologue. The story I am working on now is a Medieval Romance. I felt it need one, to not only save many pages of explanation, but to introduce the narrator and set the tone of language for the reader. The following, I felt,is an appropriate prologue to do just that…..

    Gone are the lush forests of my youth. The trees now stand bare of leaves, as if locked within winter’s spell and the clear running streams that once meandered their way through the kingdom have long since dried up. I myself spent many a lazy day frittering away the hot summer hours, lost in dreams at the edge of one of these streams, while a worm at the end of my line teased a trout into biting.
    Through the eyes of an old and dying man, I look out over fields once ablaze with a rainbow of colours of the many flowers and wild grasses, now brown and overgrown with scrub brush and brambles. A land where wildlife once abounded and unicorns could frequently be seen, frolicking carelessly on a hillside, grazing at forest’s edge or drinking from the nearby stream.
    A land where the sound of children’s laughter was mixed with the cheerful sounds of the songbirds above was now a land where only the cries brought about by hollow bellies permeated through the stone fortress and its outbuildings.
    As the morning sun burns the mist off the hill tops surrounding the castle walls, I hear the sound of hooves on the cobblestones of the courtyard below. It was the King and his men, readying themselves for the morning hunt. I know that they will return empty handed, as they had every morning for many years now, ever since the unicorns left.
    And so, without further ado, myself being one of the older members of the castle’s inhabitants, I have taken it upon myself to record the story, before it is forgotten, of how a once thriving kingdom, one of the richest in the land, now lies in distress.

    • Hello I’m an agent but for commercial photographers and this article is the equivalent of what I call ‘asparagus on a yellow background’ – the images that creators believe are original but really aren’t. In fact I recently judged a major international prize and it was amazing how many surprising cliches popped up – bearded men for example. So I understand the viewpoint of those agents above and smile at those writers who are still trying to kick against the advice like angry children. My concern as a novice writer is that I may be guilty of purple prose. I love writing lyrically and am careful to feel the rhythm of my prose as flowing or punchy, not so different from Cindy’s above, but is that adjective heavy style butt-clenchingly cringe-worthy amateurism? If so I had better stop now!

      • Rebecca, I love the analogy of “asparagus on a yellow background” — too funny! It is interesting how often we think we’re creating something original, only to find it’s nothing but.

        It’s hard to say whether your lyrical writing is “purple prose” or not — have you tried running it by a friend or two? Their reactions might help you figure it out before you try showing it to an agent or editor. Let us know how it goes!

        Heather
        TWL Assistant Editor

    • Wow, good prologue! Now I want to know what went wrong in the kingdom! A counterexample for all those prologue-protesters out there!

  27. Thank you for the writing advice! I’m one of the ones who hope to be published someday, and I will read any advice given to me by those who traveled these roads before me. I read something a long time ago about a writer who wrote a book and the editor told her to cut out the first 3 chapters…because that was where her book really began. When I write, I try to hook you with my first few sentences and then keep you hooked through the first chapter. And hopefully keep you hooked throughout the whole book!

  28. Allyn Lesley says:

    Very good post. A few I was aware of, and some I was not. This will be helpful to me in my writing.

  29. Michele Clark Powell says:

    Sorry, but all I can focus on is the game/machine behind Chucks head in his headshot… keno…

    So the jist of it is to not use too many adjectives, keep the characters relatable physically and leave the majority of the details to unfold throughout the story.

    If only.

  30. Alan Garrett says:

    A lot of useful information thanks. But I don’t agree in skip out prologue. I think depending on story and setting I think prologue is a sensible option. Just setting the mood of your story and getting you intrigued.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Alan. If a prologue feels right for your story, then you’re absolutely free to use one! You just might not want to send it to one of the agents who specifically noted their dislike for prologues :)

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

    • Hi. I don’t use prologues, but as a reader, I do like them. I even like epilogues! (*Ducks*).

      It’s difficult when agents tell you something you include in your writing makes them get stabby, but it’s best just to take the advice. After all, you want to give yourself the best chance, don’t you? We all know there are exceptions, but an exception is in a minority. Why take a chance on hitting an even smaller bullseye?

      • Yes, Zahra! I like the metaphor of choosing the size of the bullseye you want to hit. I saw James Patterson mentioned a couple times as someone who “writes prologues and gets away with it.” E.Nesbit wrote long character/setting descriptions and got away with it, becoming hugely popular long after the Romantic Age writers’ windy style passed into disfavor. But those authors are like expert marksmen. Go ahead and take a shot at publication “their way” if you like, but I’ll pick some easier targets first to develop my skill. If I’m having trouble hitting the bigger bullseyes that are right up my alley (or target lane, so to speak), then I’m probably not ready for the itty bitty ones, despite how lucrative they may seem.

        Unless inspiration strikes, of course… but I need not tell you what’s languishing in my “Develop These Manuscripts” folder… ;-)

  31. Vance Rowe says:

    This article is filled with great advice but almost every “don’t do this” is how novels start out and is a little frustrating to read through. Especially the comments about descriptions and how someone doesn’t want to read about, for instance, how a woman has long flowing blonde hair and her skin is like alabaster. Her figure petite and a smile that that would brighten even the darkest of days, etc…

    I was always told to paint a picture of your characters so they can see them as they read. I agree there are some overboard descriptions and is not something you have to do with every character in your novel but some characters have to be descriptive so the reader can see them.

    However, when it comes to writing, I am my own my worst critic. If I read something I write, chances are I will hate it even though other people tell me it is good, and I throw it all away and start over. How can I combat this? Also, I have a problem with mixing up my tenses, past and present. For instance I will say something like “It WAS easy to see that his muscles WERE sinewy” instead of, “It IS easy to see that his muscles ARE sinewy.” I have to catch myself when I write like that.

  32. I hope there are exceptions to these. The end of the firat chapter the main character wakes up as if she was experiencing a dream. BUT that’s how every chapter ends. At least so far. She struggles with fishi MG out reality among the alternative universe she finds herself stuck in!

  33. Brad Filippone says:

    Surely there are exceptions to many of these rules. The moment I read the one about not starting a book with “My name is…” I immediately thought of “Moby Dick” with its opening line of “Call me Ishmael.” And then I thought of “Great Expectations” which begins with the much more descriptive, “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”
    I agree with jumping right into the action, and “Great Expectations” is a great example. Following the self-naming paragraph quoted above, Dickens then gives us two brief paragraphs of Pip musing over his dead family members in the churchyard, before the convict accosts him and the action begins. It has always been one of my favorite novel openings.
    But speaking of Dickens, I wonder if his opening chapter for “A Tale of Two Cities” would pass muster with an agent today. It is beautifully written, (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc”), but merely describes the general mood of the period being written about, and the differences between the two cities.

    • Barbarann Ayars says:

      Love this response. We hear so much of what agents do or don’t like, determining what is unacceptable or refused by the reading public. Guidelines become hard and fast rules. Why? Because they say so? As you point out, in today’s world the great writers of the past would never be published, and look at the wonderful tales we’d miss. For years car companies dictated what cars we should like. The convertible was scrapped because someone said we no longer want it. Really. Worse, they ignored the clamor for convertibles! Ditto paint colors. Green took it in the neck, never mind the extreme popularity of jaguar green. When did I ever put a book down, saying, gee, what a lousy opening line?

  34. Ronald Doss says:

    I know some editors seem to hate Prologues, but sometimes I think they are useful. They can be short and describe an event that happened before the situation in Chapter One, and in that person’s POV, someone we won’t hear from again in the whole book. If it’s only a page or two, not rambling for 20 pages, then I think it can be very appropriate. The trouble is that some prologues I’ve read do ramble, and you don’t need to read it before beginning Chapter One. But I dislike the dismissal of prologues out of sheer habit. Editors and agents are not infallible, and they may only be reflecting a prejudice picked up by someone who taught them. I say, it all depends…

  35. Thank you for this blog, I completely redid the first chapter of my book because of this. You know what I like my story a lot more now too. :) Also you should mention that the main action has to be with the main pov, in my first draft it had started with a secondary pov, and this was confusing the heck out of people reading it.

    I always looking for constructive criticism to help polish my book. I’d appreciate it if any of you would take a look at my book and help me spot grammar errors, spelling errors, areas laking in transition words/phrases, boring spots, and excessive prose.

    My book in on wattpad.com in the fantasy category with the title of Soul Tear. You have to join to be able to post critiques and comments. Proofreaders are also badly need in wattpad as most members are ignorant about their books being needed to be looked over by a proofreader and think they have to immediately have their works looked over by and editor before the draft is even finished!

    This isn’t just about my desire to have help with my book but for the other members too. As I think having some one edit a fledglings anthers rough draft before they have even really let it grow is damaging to their story’s.I to did this until i learned better from researching in Google.

    So, please come wattpad proofreaders you are needed. I’m very good at making banners, photo editing, backgrounds, & website layouts and offer one of those as payment to who ever is willing to read my story all the way through.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents […]

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  5. […] is a great blog post about the worst ways to begin a novel, by folks who know and care: literary agents. These are the folks you’re trying to impress […]

  6. […] Now that NaNo is over and folks are facing editing, and then one day publishing, here are some tips to keep in mind while prepping your manuscript for marketing to agents. http://thewritelife.com/the-worst-ways-to-begin-your-novel-advice-from-literary-agents/ […]

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  9. […] story has a beginning, middle, and end. Chuck Sambuchino rounds up advice from literary agents on the worst ways to begin your novel; author Tammar Stein advises letting your readers in on the plot early; James Scott Bell weighs in […]

  10. […] We all know how important that first chapter is, it may be the only chance you get to sell yourself, so it better be good. In this article agents give their opinion on how not to start your novel. Maybe one of the agents you are thinking about submitting to has given their opinion? You can read the article here […]

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  12. […] After the visit of Allan Guthrie last night I thought we should continue that theme with this great post from Chuck Sambuchino on The Write Life about the Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel. […]

  13. […] Sambuchino compiles literary agent advice on overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels; Writer’s Relief points out 3 grammar mistakes you might be making; and Jason Hough compares the […]

  14. […] eller starten på alla litterära texter. Hittade den här listan på vad en grupp agents tyckte man skulle undvika i första kapitlet av […]

  15. […] Thanks to the lovely @DanCarpenter85 for tweeting this…definitely the right mixture of funny and useful. It’s taken from Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books. False beginnings, telling rather than showing…and opening Christian tales with a rape scene are all covered in how not start your novel. […]

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  19. […] Here are more types of bad beginnings from agent Chuck Sambucino: Chuck Sambuchino […]

  20. […] days, prologues have about the same cache as mullets. They might once have been cool, even sexy, but now people just shake their heads and turn the page. I don’t care for mullets, but I do think prologues can serve as a useful gateway to a story (I […]

  21. […] faktiskt är väldigt viktig. Jag stötte på en väldigt bra kommentar från en amerikansk agent  på den här sidan som jag vill dela med mig […]

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  23. […] a novel: advice from literary agents“. That’s the title of a wonderful blog post by the Write Life. Literary agents are like ‘skilled readers’ who have gone through hundreds of novels, […]

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