Excuse my late posting, everybody: I have been in one editing or writing meeting or another ALL day. So for this evening, I will tackle the set of Idol rejection reasons (see post of October 31 for the full list and rationale) that would most naturally occur to anyone doodling on her agenda through the fourth meeting of a very long day: the agents’ euphemisms for being bored by a submission.
I know, I know — this one couldn’t possibly apply to any of MY readers, all of whom are as scintillating as scintillating can be, both on and off paper. But believe it or not, agents, editors, and their respective screeners routinely report finding many submissions yawn-inducing.
Thus that latte the agency screener in my examples keeps chugging, regardless of the danger to her oft-burnt tongue.
Yet, interestingly enough, when one hears agents giving advice at conferences about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition, “don’t bore me” is very seldom heard. Partially, I think, this is due to people in the industry’s reluctance to admit in public just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them: as those of you who attended the Idol session know, the average is less than a page.
And I can easily imagine how an agent might feel a tad sheepish about admitting in front of a group of total strangers that she has an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners. Or that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control.
They don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know. But heaven forfend that an agent should march into a conference and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening opening.”
No, no, the industry logic goes, if the reader is bored, it must be the fault of the manuscript — or, more often, with problems that they see in one manuscript after another, all day long. (“Where is that nameless intern with my COFFEE?”) As it turns out, while the state of boredom is generally defined as a period with little variation, agents have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them. Presumably on the same principle as that often-repeated truism about Arctic tribes having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.
Here are the reasons the Idol panel gave (and the numbering is from the initial list of 74 rejection reasons):
7. Not enough happens on page 1
32. Where’s the conflict?
35. The story is not exciting.
36. The story is boring
38. Repetition on pg. 1 (!)
55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.
57. The writing is dull.
Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be reading a hundred submissions a week, that all sounds like snow, doesn’t it? Just imagine being in a job that compels you to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between “not exciting” and “boring.” Actually, all seven of these actually do mean different things, so let me run through them in order, so you may see why each is specifically annoying, even if you weren’t out dancing until 4 a.m.
All of them are subjective, of course, so their definitions will vary from reader to reader, but here goes.
#7, not enough happens on page 1, is often heard in its alternative incarnation, “The story took too long to start.” Remember earlier in the week, when I urged you to sit in the chair of that burnt-tongued screener, racing through manuscripts, knowing that she will have to write a summary of any story she recommends? Well, think about it for a moment: how affectionate is she likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about on page 1?
Sound familiar? It should: very frequently, novel openings are slowed by the various descriptive tactics I described a couple of days ago. On behalf of agency screeners, hung over and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.
Which brings me to #32, where’s the conflict? This objection has gained more currency since writing gurus have started touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey as the story arc of the book. Since within that storyline, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. But there are a LOT of writing advice books out there that will tell you this is the only way to structure a story. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character learns an important life lesson on page 72 of the script.)
While this is an interesting way to structure a book, it tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter. Which is interesting, actually, because most people’s everyday lives are simply chock-full of conflict. Even if you want to start out in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake: ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1.
#35 and #36 — not exciting and boring, respectively — are fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to different types of text. A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or the pace moves too slowly. Basically, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it would be compelling.
A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a line.
Again, I doubt any of MY readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under a good first reader’s eyes to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.
The final three — #38, repetition on page 1, #55, took too many words to tell us what happened, and #57, dull writing — also respond well, in my experience, to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. Agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed. Ditto with excess verbiage: publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them.
The best way to determine whether your submission has any of these problems is — and longtime readers of this blog, please chant it with me now — to read your submission IN HARD COPY, OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen. Trust me on this one.
Oh, I feel a well-deserved post-meeting nap coming on. Sleep well, everybody, and keep up the good work!