As some of you know, I attended a couple of literary contests this month, partially as teacher, partially as seeker of continuing education (which all writers, published or not, should do from time to time, to keep those skills fresh and project-ready), and partially as observer for you fine people. Bar none, there was one panel that generated more buzz than all of the other classes at both conferences put together: the infamous Idol panel at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.
Why infamous? Well, picture this, my friends: brave souls submit (anonymously) the first page of their novels, which are read out loud by a perfectly wonderful reader (the excellent Jack Whyte, who could make the telephone book sound gripping). During the readings, as the uncredited writers quake in their chairs, the three agents on the panel shout out “STOP!” at the point where they would cease reading the submission.
It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
This event, which actually resembled The Gong Show more than American Idol, went on for a trifle over two hours. Since last year was a real bloodbath, the agents were making an effort to be nicer this year; I have it on the best possible authority that there was some behind-the-scenes squabbling about who would get to be the Paula Abdul equivalent, the one who would find nice things to say. With that mindset, it was probably inevitable that the agents were much, much kinder: this time around, perhaps half a dozen submissions were read all the way to the end of the page.
Brutal, true, but what better way to see just how quickly agents (and their screeners) make up their minds about a submission? Most aspiring writers don’t want to believe that work is rejected on partial readings, but here, there was no doubt about how and why these agents were moving submissions into the reject pile within a paragraph or two. And, lest we forget, since the submissions were being read out loud, none of these rejections could possibly be for reasons of poor formatting, spelling problems, etc. This was purely on storytelling alone.
And this at a conference thrown by the legendarily courteous Canadians.
The shock of realization for most of the attendees, as you might well imagine, was considerable. Not only for the brave souls who had submitted their work — and many kudos to them for such stoic courage — but for everyone else as well, at such tangible proof that getting a submission accepted was every bit as hard as it is rumored to be. You could feel the air in the room change palpably as the writers there got it at last: the quick rejections are not really born of meanness, but the fact that they see so very many manuscripts that are so very similar.
The repetition across manuscripts was, to put it mildly, rather an astonishment to a lot of the writers in the room, but if you’ve been paying attention to my last few days’ worth of posts, it should not come as much of a surprise to you. The fact is, the standard stylistic advice has lead to a handful of pretty standard openings — and after even just a half an hour’s worth, it became very apparent just how stultifying all that similarity can be. Originality leapt out at the numbed crowd like a flame from Godzilla’s mouth, often startling everyone into spontaneous applause.
If that was true for single pages read aloud by a superlative reader, think how much greater both the cumulative effect of boredom and the pleasing electrification of something honestly different would be to an agency screener who reads hundreds of first pages in a day.
And that’s without the addition of the possibility that the screener is having a bad day. As I believe I may have suggested ONCE OR TWICE before, a writer simply can’t assume a charitable reading for a submission. To get a realistic sense of how your work will fare on an agent’s desk, you really do have to look at that opening with the assumption that the agent will be looking for reasons NOT to read the rest of the submission, not reasons to read on.
Naturally, this looking-to-dislike attitude does not continue for the entire reading, of course. If an agent decides to keep reading, eventually, she does start looking for reasons to like it. How far in, you ask? Well, I’m not sure that there is a common breaking point, but the last agent I asked, a very good one who likes writers a lot, said that he is routinely looking for reasons to reject a manuscript up to page 175. After that, he says, he begins reading for reasons to sign the author.
Since the Idol session really was a crash course in reasons submissions get rejected — on the first page! — I decided that the best way to serve my readers during it was to write down every general reason that any of the three agents (Rachel Vater of Lowenstein-Yost, Nadia Cornier of Firebrand Literary, and Daniel Lazar of Writers House) gave for continuing or not continuing with a submission. In the days to come, I shall talk about the specifics in some detail, but for today, I’m simply going to list the reasons. The resulting list is long, but well worth reading.
The first thing I would ask you to note: the length of the This is Why I Would Read Beyond the Page 1 list vs. the This is Why I Would Not Read Farther. The second thing to note, please, is that ALL of these comments were based upon A SINGLE PAGE, and often on the first few lines or first paragraph alone. Their judgments are stunningly quick.
The third thing — and the last for today, because I don’t want to scare you into conniption fits, even if it is Halloween — is that since the agents were hearing these submitted first pages, rather than reading them, that ALL of these are matters of style, rather than matters of presentation.
This is Why I Would Not Read Farther:
1. An opening image that did not work.
2. Opened with rhetorical question(s).
3. The first line is about setting, not about story.
4. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene.
5. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene.
6. Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.
7. Not enough happens on page 1
8. The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.
9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”
10. The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”
11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”
12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.
13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.
14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. (The most I counted in a single submission was 5.) Specifically singled out: a character’s long red or blonde hair.
15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. Specifically singled out: a character who shakes her head to clear an image, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.”
16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
18. The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest…
19. An unnamed character (usually “she”) is wandering around the opening scene.
20. Non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time (and remember, on the first page, a paragraph is a long time).
21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a physical description.
22. The first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action.
23. Too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents, Daniel Lazar, seemed to have a problem with this.)
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
27. The book opened with a flashback, rather than what was going on now.
28. Too many long asides slowed down the action of an otherwise exciting scene.
29. Descriptive asides pulled the reader out of the conflict of the scene.
30. Overuse of dialogue, in the name of realism.
31. Real life incidents are not always believable.
32. Where’s the conflict?
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
35. The story is not exciting.
36. The story is boring (yes, they did differentiate between this and the one before it.)
37. The story is corny.
38. Repetition on pg. 1 (!)
39. Too many generalities.
40. The character shown is too average.
41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.
42. The opening scene is too violent (in the example that generated this response, a baby’s brains were bashed out against a tree).
43. Too gross.
44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.
45. It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead.
46. The story is written in the second person, which is hard to maintain.
47. The story is written in the first person plural, which is almost as hard to maintain.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.
49. The narration is in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate.
50. An adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often assumed to be YA.
51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (They don’t call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)
52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example used: “She squawked.”)
53. The writing switched tenses for no apparent reason.
54. The action is told out of temporal order.
55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.
56. The writing lacks pizzazz.
57. The writing is dull.
58. The writing is awkward.
59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.
60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions. Specifically singled out: “She did not trust herself to speak,” “She didn’t want to look…”
61. Too many analogies per paragraph.
62. The details included were not telling.
63. The writing includes quotes from song lyrics.
64. Overkill to make a point.
65. “Over the top.”
66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”
67. “It’s not visceral.”
68. “It’s not atmospheric.”
69. “It’s melodramatic.”
70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”
71. “Why is this written in the present tense?”
72. “It just didn’t work for me.”
73. “It didn’t do anything for me.”
74. “I like this, but I don’t know what to do with it.”
This is Why I Would Read Beyond Page 1:
1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
3. The author made the point, then moved on.
4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
5. The voice is strong and easy to relate to.
6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
7. “Good opening line.”
8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”
And all this, recall, was just from the first page of all of these submissions. Often the first few lines. Seriously, could I have done anything more effective to give you a good Halloween scare?
Tomorrow, I shall start picking apart the hows and whys of these critiques. In the meantime, hand out lots of candy, and keep up the good work!