Isn’t it amazing how good art keeps surprising, even when one comes back to it again and again? I must have cast my eye over Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix hundreds of times, but until today, I never noticed the sundial in the background. I guess I was always too distracted by that sinister bird attacking the poor lady in the foreground.
We’re all about sundials and other timepieces today, my friends. Tempus fugit, and we need to get a move on, because in this post, we’re going to be concentrating on ways that first pages of submissions waste professional readers’ time.
Yes, I know: none of us tend to think of our own writing as potentially time-wasting. (Well, okay: those of us who blog have been known to consider that possibility occasionally, especially those of us whose writer friends are prone to whine, “But your posts are always so long!”) But trust me, from the point of view of someone whose job it is to plow through thousands of pages of requested materials, the threshold for impatience starts at about toe height.
Time’s a-wasting! Let’s move on to the meat of the post!
I had taken the time to write a long, luxurious post today, a nine-pager all about various rejection criteria on the Idol list (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the first post in this series”), but much to my annoyance, my computer just ate it in a single bite. Not a trace of it left.
Let me take time out for a public service announcement: make backups of your writing regularly. No computer is immortal, after all.
After my post disappeared into the ether that sucks up lost socks, the snows of yesteryear, and Amelia Earharts, I seriously considered not investing the time in trying to recreate it — but then I realized my current annoyed-and-pressed-for-time mood is actually quite close to the average agent’s attitude when she’s screening a mountain of submissions, and thus might be the perfect mindset for writing about the most common category of rejection reasons: those that are about wasting the agent’s TIME.
So pay attention, people: I’m only going to say this once.
As I mentioned yesterday, the Idol list can be a pretty intimidating (and internally contradictory) set of guidelines if you try to follow each and every one of them to the letter. In the interests of gleaning insights that you can actually use in your writing, I’m breaking them down into conceptual bundles, so you can get into the habit of writing opening pages that hold agents’ and editors’ attention.
Today, I have selected the rejection reasons that are temporally-based:
#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.
#8. The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.
#18. The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest…
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.
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
Now, not all of these appear to be major time-wasters at first glance, do they? But from an agent’s point of view, they are — if, as they do, you count the time to be wasted in nanoseconds.
Because, you see, all of them require the reader to invest time figuring out what who the protagonist is, what’s going on, and/or just what the writer is trying to pull here.
Confused? Okay, let’s take yet another imaginative field trip into the mindset of everyone’s favorite agency screener, Millicent, to figure out just why even seconds of time-wasting might strike anyone as a rejection-worthy offense. Ready, set — picture!
You are Millicent, agency lackey, a luckless soul with fifty submissions to read in the next hour. Grab yourself a nice cup of coffee to improve your mood, because you deserve it: you have worked through your lunch hour for the last three days straight, and since you have a date today, you have no intention of doing it again, considering how little you’re paid to do this work; you are spending your evenings wading through grad school applications, and you have, of course, just burned your tongue on that too-hot latte you grabbed because I advised you to get because you were drooping a little.
Got all that firmly in your mind? Good. Now, start reading.
First, let’s start with a set of manuscripts that have the following problems:
#2, opened with rhetorical question(s);
#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;
#8, the opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch.
“My God,” you think, rejecting all of them by the end of the first paragraph, “do these writers think I’m made of time?” Okay, let’s think about why: what do all of these objections have in common?
I won’t keep you in suspense long (because I have THINGS TO DO, people!): these all are, from the screener’s point of view, delaying tactics that prevent the start of the story of the book.
Oh, and I suppose now you would like me to show you how and why…oh, okay, but let’s make this quick.
#2 (opening with a rhetorical question) and #8, (the opening sounded like a recap of the pitch) are instances of over-selling: these techniques can work beautifully in a query letter, pitch, or NF book proposal, but obviously, if anyone at an agency is reading your opening page, these sales techniques have already worked.
So why, Millicent is likely to wonder, is the submitter flogging an already defunct equine?
Don’t over-close; by the time professional readers reach the first page of a requested manuscript, they expect the pitch to be over and the substance of the book to have begun. This is also, incidentally, one of the reasons that the kinds of generalities that work so well to sum things up in a synopsis often don’t receive a warm reception on the first few pages of a manuscript: agents expect the specific writing to begin on page 1.
#4 (the hook was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene) and #5 (the hook was an unrelated image, rather than something that was happening in the scene) are also, from the point of view of the industry, delaying tactics. Instead of launching right into the story, such openings are a pre-show come-on; rather than being indicators of what is to come, they simply attract the reader’s attention to the book.
And since agents don’t like to be tricked — better write that one down, so you don’t forget it — they tend to instruct their screeners to stop reading as soon as it is apparent that such a bait-and-switch has occurred.
Why? Well, picture yourself as the sore-tongued Millicent. You are going to have to be able to pitch any manuscript that survives that first read, and with fiction, that means being able to recap the story.
So the second question you are going to ask yourself as you lean over the page is, “What is this story about?” (Your first question, of course, will be, “Is this in standard format?” Your third will be, “Can this author write?”) So if you have to read beyond the first third of a page to figure out what the story IS, you’re probably going to get a trifle miffed.
Hey, your lunch date is waiting.
The fact that a hook can be a deal-breaker is a little counterintuitive to anyone who has ever taken a writing class in North America, isn’t it? We’ve all been told time and time again that every manuscript needs a hook, a stunning first line, opening image, or conflict to draw the reader into the rest of the work. Since this advice is so ubiquitous, unfortunately, there are a lot of manuscripts out there where unrelated matters have been grafted onto the first page or so, to provide, the author thinks, a kick that the opening of the story itself does not provide.
Not too offensive, really, as shortcuts go. But imagine reading a hundred manuscripts that used this trick every week.
It would get a trifle old, wouldn’t it?
The moral of today’s first four admonitions: don’t provide a preamble to your story; jump right in.
See, that wasn’t too intimidating, was it? We all could remember to do that much.
Burn your lips afresh, campers, and get back into your agency screener costume, because we’re going to move on to the next set of rejection reasons. What do all of the following have in common:
#3, the first line is about setting, not about story;
#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, the opening spent too much time setting up the environment, and not enough on character.
Seeing a pattern here? The essential complaint is the same in them all: the narrative does not open with the story itself, but with setting the scene for it. Essentially, such first pages begin before the story opens. And that’s going to set that latte-scalded tongue swearing, believe you me.
Why? Because the author has just expected Millicent to read a whole lot of verbiage that isn’t going to help her one iota in constructing a pitch for that book. Next!
Again, this is a touch counter-intuitive to anyone who has ever spent five consecutive minutes in a room with an English composition teacher, isn’t it? We’ve all been taught that good writers set the scene meticulously; most of us like to show what our characters look like and where they are right off the bat, so the reader can picture them, or even give background information so the reader can understand where the protagonist has been, and where she finds herself now.
Brace yourself, because this is going to make your pacifist, Hemingway-loving tenth grade English teacher reach for a meat clever with the intent of committing homicide, but in the current industry, this type of opening is almost universally frowned upon in novels.
Plenty of readers like the physical details minimal, so they can picture the characters for themselves (so all of that oh-so-common tossing around of long red or blonde hair on opening pages is often gratuitous), and actually, for most scenes containing conflict, the most interesting thing about the characters is not how they look or the room that they’re in, but what is going on amongst them.
Unless you’re Charles Dickens (who I doubt would care much for my blog, any more than Henry James would), those types of details can be introduced slowly — and often, background information actually doesn’t need to be in Chapter 1 at all. Folks in the industry — and that includes both potential representers of your work and potential publishers of it — consistently express a preference for jumping directly into the action early and often.
So the moral of this set: begin in the scene, not before it. Let’s not waste the nice screener’s time.
At first blush, the remaining rejection reasons
#1, an opening image that did not work;
#6, took too long for anything to happen;
#18, the unnamed protagonist cliché, and
#26, when the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified
might not appear (other than #6, of course) to be about how long it takes for the screener to make it through the first paragraph. This is why it’s so important to place yourself in the screener’s shoes in order to evaluate your own work: from her point of view, all of these are about wasting her time.
Let’s take them one by one, to see why.
#6 is the easiest to comprehend, of course — although from a lay person’s point of view, the idea that any sane person would start moaning about a slow opening by the end of line 3 seems a trifle, well, insane. Yet in order to be able to answer that crucial second question (“What is this story about?”), the screener needs to find out what the story IS. With her tight schedule (see above), what do you think the chances are that she’s going to read all the way through a slow opening scene to get to the meat of the conflict?
That’s right: not high.
Once again, this is a fact that will drive the average English teacher into a straitjacket, but remember, we’re not talking here about advice that’s going to teach you how to produce great literature; all of these tips are geared toward helping you understand why certain submissions are welcomed by agents and editors and others rejected within a matter of seconds.
That is a line that gets blurred, I think, at too many writers’ conferences: the advice from the business end of the industry isn’t about art — it’s about professional presentation and what sells. That’s what agents and editors typically mean by good writing.
And no, tenth-grade English teacher, those three things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, so put down that axe you’re wielding.
To grasp why #18, the unnamed protagonist cliché, is a time-waster from a screener’s point of view, here is an example of it in action. Let’s use the painting at the top of this post as inspiration, shall we?
The woman fled through the forest, her long, red hair cloaking the bundle clutched to her ample bosom, shielding her precious bundle from the driving rain. She couldn’t feel if the baby was still breathing; she had no time to stop and check. All she could do was speed them both away from the marauding (insert enemy of choice here) troops, away from any possible medical help for her too-soon born babe, away from everything she had ever known.
Now, there’s really no shortage of action in that opening, is there? Nor is there any serious question about what the book is about: the story is obviously going to concern this woman, her baby, and all of that red hair in their collective attempt to reach safety. Assuming that the long, red hair cliché and the “everything she had ever known” exaggeration didn’t knock this submission out of consideration, why, then would Millicent be tempted to rejected this submission without reading any farther?
Hint: think like a time-pressed screener here, not like a writer, or even like a reader. It’s vital to bear in mind that folks in the industry, bless their nit-picking hearts, do not think like writers. We tend to be acute observers of human behavior, in love with rhythm and form; they tend to be acute observers of the printed page, with a preternatural drive to ferret out what’s wrong with it.
And then there are poor souls like me, born with a propensity to both. No wonder I’m an insomniac; that’s a lot of brain work for any given 24-hour period.
So while a lay reader might read the opening above and think, “Heavens, will she get away? What is pursing her? Is the baby alive?”, and a writer might think, “Wow, the pacing is good here, but I would like to see more character development for the woman,” Millicent would think, “Is there any particular REASON that I’m being held in suspense about this broad’s NAME? Is it really MY job to read on until the author deigns to tell me? This writer has seen too many movies; in a book written in the third person, you don’t need to wait until someone addresses the protagonist to find out her name. And oh, damn, I’ve already spent a minute and a half waiting to find out! Aaaah! How is it possible that my latte hasn’t cooled by now?”
Trust me, you’re better off identifying your characters right away.
#26, the speaker of the first line of dialogue’s not being identified, is another indirect time-waster — and a yet another side effect of the Thou Must Create a Hook school of writing advice. A startling statement can indeed make a great opening for a book, but it does not always.
Again, let’s take a field trip into that screener’s head while she’s reading such a manuscript: “Oh, great, I’m left to guess who said this. Guess I’ll have to keep reading into my lunch hour to find out who’s who here — NOT! At least there’s no long, red hair in this one.”
The moral of the last three: do not waste the nice reader’s time, even indirectly. The animals become fractious around feeding time.
#1, the opening image that did not work, is entirely subjective, of course, but to a screener, it’s also a time-management issue. Millicent can either spend the next five minutes bending her problem-solving mind to figuring out WHY that opening image, metaphor, line of dialogue, etc., didn’t flow right on the page, or reject it right away and spend the other four and a half minutes screening other manuscripts.
Heck, if they all have opening paragraph problems, she might get through ten or fifteen of them in that time.
Comfortable with all that? Good. Time to check whether I’ve been too subtle here: what is that overarching lesson to be learned from all of these?
I’d tell you the answer, but I just don’t have time. I have a whole lot of reading to do. And even more to write.
More wading through knee-jerk rejection reasons follows next time, of course. Keep up the good work!