Hello, campers –
We open today with a pop quiz: quick, name all of these Supreme Court justices, as well as the presidents who appointed them. I’ll give you a minute, starting — now!
Just kidding. No one seems to remember that Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens.
Speaking of judgments, I didn’t mean to take quite so long a New Year’s hiatus, but here it is January 5th before I hop back onto the proverbial horse again. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break.
Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again.
Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it. For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s usually friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers.
Now that I’ve returned, let’s get back to business as swiftly as possible. For the next few weeks, we’re going to be concentrating on a topic near and dear to aspiring writers’ hearts: minimizing the probability of one’s submission’s getting rejected on page 1.
In answer to the gasp I just heard, yes, you read that correctly. To break even more bad news, while submission screening standards admittedly do vary slightly from agency to agency and publishing house to publishing house, rejection within the first page of a manuscript is the norm, not the exception.
And that’s during periods when agencies and small publishing houses aren’t especially swamped.
Do I see some raised hands out there? “Um, Anne?” some of you ask with quavering voices. “Dare I ask what happens when they are especially swamped? Like, say, right about now?”
An excellent question, oh nervous quaverers: during high-volume periods, anecdotal evidence suggests that page 1 rejections soar even higher.
Why might the percentage rise at certain times? Well, place yourself in the trodden-down heels of our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, the fortunate soul charged with both opening all of those query letters and giving a first reading to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria. At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk.
The reason for screening is simple, of course: logistics. A reasonably well-respected agent might receive a 1000 queries in any given week; if Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.
Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already have clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.
How likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries they need to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.
See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you?
Millicent, then, has a rather different job than most submitters assume: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” Since her desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading, right?
Given the imperative to plow through them all with dispatch, then, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense — or even be handed a list — of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat?
You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. I leave it to your sense of probability.
Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.
Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.
Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 2!”
While I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for very long, if a writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book — place yourself once again in Millicent’s loafers: if you walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria or less?
Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be crankier than usual right about now. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?
This is the primary reason, in case some of you have been wondering, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year, while Millie is still digging her way out of that mountain of papers. I’m not suggesting holding off for long, though: the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks. So if you wish to send out your queries and submissions sometime after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, you may do it with my blessings.
Brace yourselves, because all of this is merely preamble to today’s topic: how to avoid the wrath of Millicent while running the page 1 gauntlet.
Fortunately for aspiring writers everywhere, the vast majority of Millicents share certain rejection triggers, so it is possible to learn what they are and screen one’s own manuscript for them. Even more fortunately, a small handful of agents are kind enough to go around to writers’ conferences and talk about them.
The series that follows is the result of my taking very, very good notes at one such conference a couple of years ago. Although some new pet peeves have doubtless cropped up in the meantime — every megabestseller brings its own wave of easily-rejected copycat submissions, for instance — most of the ones mentioned here are classics, still guaranteed to raise the hackles of virtually any Millicent currently screening manuscripts in North America.
Therefore, I don’t have too many qualms about rerunning this series more or less as is — arguably, these are some of the most important posts I have ever run. Since I gather that most of the members of the Author! Author! community visit the archives but sparingly, if at all, I can’t resist dragging these posts back up to the top of the pile, as it were.
You didn’t expect me to leave you twiddling your thumbs for the next few weeks, did you? Enjoy!
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. And this at a conference thrown by the legendarily courteous-to-strangers Canadians.
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.
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, very similar.
No writer likes to think that about his own work, right?
The repetition across manuscripts was, to put it mildly, rather an astonishment to a lot of the writers in the room, but to those who have been hanging around this blog for a while, 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.
On the bright side, 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 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 perusing.
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 extent of This is Why I Would Not Read Farther reasons. As I’ve pointed out before — in this post, even — they’re looking for reasons to reject, not reasons to accept. So if you were planning to submit unrevised pages under the assumption that your future agent will overlook any small problems for now, concentrating on the beauty of the writing or cleverness of the premise, you might want to give some thought about whether it genuinely serves you to presume that your submission will receive the benefit of the doubt.
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.
Which, again, echoes the typical screener’s response, right?
The third thing — and the last for today, because I don’t want to scare you into conniption fits 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 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. So if the agent doesn’t represent YA, such a protagonist may trigger automatic wonder about whether this book is not in a category s/he does represent.
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 protagonist 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 of these comments, recall, was just from the first page of all of these submissions. Often the first few lines.
Well may you gulp.
Tomorrow, I shall start picking apart the hows and whys of these critiques, so you may spot them on your first pages. In the meantime, try not to panic, and keep up the good work!