Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part VIII: maintaining Millicent’s interest, or why butter SHOULD melt in your protagonist’s mouth from time to time

I have been in one editing or writing meeting or another ALL day, I’ll have you know, the kind where various well-meaning, highly intelligent people quibble for 45 minutes over how a single sentence of text should be rendered. (Yes, professional writers and editors honestly do spend their time this way, more’s the pity, just as stereotype dictates we should.) Having spent a number of years of my wayward slightly-older-than-youth writing political platforms — yes, some luckless soul gets stuck with that job in every election cycle; did you think that many platitudes could find their way into a single document all by themselves? — I’m rather used to this level of hyper-literal debate, but still, I invariably find it tiring.

It’s not going over the same half-sentence for an hour that I mind; it’s the strain involved in not throwing paper clips at the person who has just made the same objection for the 15th time, apparently for no better reason than that no one else in the room thought it was worth bending to his will the first 14 times he brought it up. Part of the skill set in my line of work involves keeping the paper clips to oneself, after all. To hear me respond the 15th time, you would have assumed that I was in the sunniest of moods.

Butter, as the saying goes, wouldn’t have melted in my mouth.

To reward myself for being on such remarkably good behavior for such a remarkably long time, today I shall tackle the set of Idol rejection reasons (please see the first post in this series 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 — yawn-inducing is an epithet couldn’t possibly apply to any of MY readers’ work, since all of you 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, many submissions snore-fests.

Thus that latte Millicent, the agency screener in my examples, keeps chugging, regardless of the danger to her oft-burnt tongue. She has to do something to stay awake as she’s leafing through the fifty submissions before yours turns up to brighten her day and gladden her heart.

Boring Millicent is one of the most common reasons for rejection at both the submission and query stages, 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, “Whatever you do, 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.

How little? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: the average submission is rejected on page 1. Sometimes in paragraph 1, or even sentence 1. As with query letters, submissions arrive at agencies in sufficient volume that screeners are trained to find reasons to reject them, rather than reasons to accept them.

Or, to put it another way, the ones that get accepted are the ones that make it through the lengthy rejection reason gauntlet successfully.

Why isn’t this fact shouted from the rooftops and hung on banners from the ceilings of writers’ conferences, since being aware of it could only help everyone concerned? Well, having met my share of conference organizers, I would imagine it has something to do with not wanting to discourage attendees into giving up. It is a genuinely depressing state of affairs, after all, especially for those who have been querying and submitting for a while, and I can understand not wanting to be standing in a room with 400 writers hearing this hard fact for the first time.

Also, whenever I HAVE heard the news broken at a conference, the audience tends to react, well, a trifle negatively. Which is perfectly understandable, since from an aspiring writer’s point of view, such a declaration almost invariably means one of two things: either the agent or editor is a mean person who hates literature (but loves bestsellers), or that the admitter possesses an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners and thus should not be submitted to, queried, or even approached at all. Either way, writers tend to react as though the pro were admitting a personal failing.

My impression, though, is that when agents do make this comment at a conference, they’re assuming that they’re not addressing run-of-the-mill queriers and submitters, but an elite subgroup that has done its homework (and can afford to attend a writers’ conference, which are often rather expensive). As any agent who routinely attends conferences must be aware, the vast majority of queriers and submitters never go NEAR a writers’ conference, or take writing classes, or bother to do some web surfing to try to find out a little something about how the industry works. Most professional readers assume, therefore, that the writers to whom they are speaking are not the ones sending in either the jaw-droppingly rude query letters, the submission filled with misspellings and grammatical mistakes, or the first page that automatically prompts a sleepy Millicent to reach for her coffee.

That may not be a completely warranted assumption — except amongst my readers, of course, every one of whose queries and submissions are exemplary. But the fact is, there’s a reason that mentioning that you heard an agent speak at a conference tends to get a query letter taken more seriously: it’s an indication of homework-doing.

The prevailing assumptions about Millicent’s notoriously short attention span isn’t strictly speaking true, either, She may have a super-short of attention span for the opening pages of submissions, but she’s been known to pore over the 18th draft of an already-signed writer whose work she loves three times over. So has her boss, and the editor to whom they sell their clients’ work. However, since none of the three want to encourage submitters to bore them, they might not be all that likely to admit the latter before a bunch of aspiring writers at a conference.

Something else you’re unlikely to hear: 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. I cast no aspersions and make no judgments, but 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 first few pages, okay?”

No, no, the prevailing wisdom 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?” the agent moans.)

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 Artic 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 variations on snow, doesn’t it? But put yourself in Millicent’s stylish boots for a momentL imagine holding a job that compels you to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between “not exciting” and “boring.”

This probably wasn’t the glamour she expected when she first landed the job at the agency.

Actually, all seven of these reasons actually do mean different things from the screener’s side of the submission, 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 precise definitions will vary from reader to reader, but let’s take a crack at some general definitions, shall we?

#7, not enough happens on page 1, is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. Many a wonderful manuscript doesn’t really hit its stride until page 4 — or 15, or 146.

And you’d be amazed at how often a good writer will bury a terrific first line for the book on page 10.

The screening process is not, to put it mildly, set up to reward brilliance that takes a little while to warm up — and that’s not merely a matter of impatience on the reader’s part. Remember earlier in the this series, 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 manuscript 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 by the end of 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, sleep-deprived, and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, give the reader a sense of who the protagonist is and what the book is about quickly.

Yes, even if you are convinced in the depths of your creative heart that the book in its published form should open with a lengthy disquisition on philosophy instead of plot. Remember, manuscripts almost always change between when an agent picks them up and when the first editor sees them, and then again before they reach publication. If you make a running order change in order to render your book a better grabber for Millicent on page 1, you probably will be able to change it back.

Or at least have a lovely long argument with your future agent and/or editor about why you shouldn’t.

Speaking of unseemly brawls, #32, where’s the conflict? is an exceptionally frequent reason for rejecting submissions. In professional reader-speak, this objection can indicate either that the opening is well-written, but lacks the dramatic tension that arises from interpersonal friction (or in literary fiction, intrapersonal friction) — or, more frequently, that it’s not clear to Millicent what is at stake, who is fighting over it, and why the reader should care.

Oh, you may smile at the notion of cramming that much information, which is really the province of a synopsis or pitch, into the first page of a manuscript, but to be blunt about it, Millicent’s going to need all of that information to pitch the book to her higher-ups at the agency. Giving her some immediate hints about where the plot is going is thus a shrewd strategic move.

Where’s the conflict? has been heard much more often in professional readers’ circles since writing gurus 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. Or you can rent one of the early STAR WARS movies, or pretty much any US film made in the 1980s or 1990s where the protagonist learns an Important Life Lesson. 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 where the goal is attained and the chase scenes begin on page 72 of the script.)

While this is an interesting way to structure a book, starting every story in the so-called normal world tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter, by definition: according to the fine folks who plot this way, the potential conflict is what knocks the protagonist out of his everyday world.

I find this plotting assumption fascinating, because I don’t know how reality works where you live, but around here, most people’s everyday lives are simply chock-full of conflict. Gobs and gobs of it. And if you’re shaking your head right now, thinking that I must live either a very glamorous life or am surrounded by the mentally unbalanced, let me ask you: have you ever held a job where you didn’t have to work with at least one person who irritated you profoundly?

Having grown up in a very small town, my impression is that your garden-variety person is more likely to experience conflict with others on the little interpersonal level in a relatively dull real-life situation than in an inherently exciting one — like, say, a crisis where everyone has to pull together. And having had the misfortune to work once in an office where fully two-thirds of the staff was going through menopause, prompting vicious warfare over where the thermostat should be set at any given moment, either hot enough to broil a fish next to the copy machine or cool enough to leave meat, eggs, and ice cubes lying about on desks for future consumption, let me tell you, sometimes the smallest disagreements can make for the greatest tension.

I know, I know: that’s not the way we see tension in the movies, where the townsfolk huddled in the blacked-out supermarket, waiting for the prehistoric creatures to attack through the frozen food section, suddenly start snapping at one another because the pressure of anticipation is so great. But frankly, in real life, people routinely snap at one another in supermarkets when there aren’t any prehistoric beasts likely to carry off the assistant produce manager, and I think it’s about time we writers started acknowledging that.

I’m bringing this up for good strategic reasons: just because you may not want to open your storyline with THE conflict of the book doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t open it with A conflict. Even if you have chosen to ground your opening in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, there’s absolutely no reason that you can’t ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1.

Or, to put it a trifle less delicately, it will not outrage the principles of realism to make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake throughout your opening paragraphs.

Do I spot some hesitantly raised hands out there? “But Anne,” I hear some courteous souls protest, “I’m trying to show that my protagonist is a normal person, a nice one that the reader will grow to love, and conflict to me means fighting. People are awful when they’re fighting, aren’t they? How do I present my sweet, caring protagonist as likable if she’s embroiled in a conflict from page 1? Is it okay to have the conflict going on around her?”

Ah, you’ve brought up one of the classic nice novelist’s misconceptions, courteous protesters: the notion that what makes a human being likable in real life will automatically render a fictionalized version of that person adorable, a philosophy particularly prevalent in first-person narratives. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of otherwise well-written manuscripts I’ve seen since I began reading professionally where the primary goal of the opening scene(s) is apparently to impress the reader with the how nice and kind and just gosh-darned polite the protagonist is.

Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, either.

As charming as such people may be when one encounters them in real life, from a professional reader’s point of view. they often make rather irritating protagonists, for precisely the reason we’re discussing today: they tend to be conflict-avoiders.

Which can render them a trifle, well, dull on the page.

Why, you gasp? Well, since interpersonal conflict is the underlying basis of drama (you might want to take a moment to jot that one down, portrayers of niceness), habitually conflict-avoiding protagonists tend to stand in the way of a plot’s moving forward. Instead of providing the engine that moves the plot forward, they keep throwing it into neutral, or even reverse, in an effort to keep tempers from clashing.

Like protagonists who are poor interviewers (a group I shall be revisiting in the weeks to come, never fear), the conflict-shy have a nasty habit of walking away from potentially interesting scenes that might flare up, not asking the question that the reader wants asked because it might offend another of the characters, or even being just so darned polite that their dialogue doesn’t add anything to the scene other than conveying that they have some pretty nifty manners.

These protagonists’ mothers might be pleased to see them conducting themselves so well, but they make Millicent want to tear her hear out.

“No, no, NO!” the courteous gasp. “Polite people are nice, and polite people really do talk courteously in real life! How can it be wrong to depict that on the page?”

Oh, dear, how to express this without hurting anyone’s feelings…have you ever happened to notice just how predictable polite interchanges are? By definition, they’re generic; given a specific set of circumstances, any polite person might say precisely the same things — which means that if the reader happens to have been brought up to observe the niceties, or even knows someone who has, s/he can pretty much always guess what a habitually polite character will say, and sometimes do, in the face of plot turns and twists.

And predictability, my friends, is one of the most efficient dramatic tension-killers known to humankind.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a gander at this gallant conversation in a doorway:

“Oh, pardon me, James. I didn’t see you there. Please go first.”

“Not at all, Cora. After you.”

“No, no, I insist. You got to the doorway first.”

“But your arms are filled with packages. Permit me to hold the door for you, dear lady.”

“Well, if you insist, James. Thank you.”

“Not at all, Cora. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thanks. Please convey my regards to your mother.”

“I’m sure she’ll be delighted. Do send my best love to your wife and seventeen children. Have a nice day.”

“You, too, Cora.”

Courteous? Certainly. Stultifying dialogue? Absolutely.

Now, I grant you that this dialogue does impress upon the reader that James and Cora are polite human beings, but was it actually necessary to invest 6 lines of text in establishing that not-very-interesting fact? Wouldn’t it be more space-efficient if the author had used that space SHOWING that these are kind people through action? (“My God, Cora, I can’t believe you risked your life saving that puppy from the rampaging tiger on your way back from your volunteer gig tutoring prison inmates in financial literacy!”)

Or, if that seems a touch melodramatic to you, how about showing dialogue that also reveals characteristics over and above mere politeness? While you’re at it, why not experiment with letting some of that butter in your protagonist’s mouth rise to body temperature from time to time?

Was that giant rush of air I just heard a collective gasp? “But Anne,” a few consistency-huggers out there shout, “you can’t seriously mean to suggest that I should have my protagonist act out of character! Won’t that just read as though I don’t know what my character is like?”

Actually, no — it can be very good strategy character development. Since completely consistent characters can easily become predictable (case in point: characters on sitcoms, who often learn Important Life Lessons in one week’s episode and apparently forget it by the following episode), many authors choose to intrigue their audiences by having their characters do or say something off-beat every so often. Keeps the reader guessing — which is a great first step toward keeping the reader engaged.

And don’t underestimate the charm of occasional clever rudeness for revealing character in an otherwise polite protagonist. Take a look at this probably apocryphal but widely reported doorway exchange between authors Clare Boothe Luce and Dorothy Parker, and see if it doesn’t tell you a little something about the characters involved:

The two illustrious ladies bumped into each other at the entrance to the theatre. As it was an opening night performance and the two were well known to be warm personal enemies, a slight hush fell over the crowd around them. 

In the face of such scrutiny, Mrs. Luce tried to rise to the challenge. “Age before beauty,” she told Mrs. Parker, waving toward the door.

“And pearls before swine,” Mrs. Parker allegedly replied.


Polite? Not particularly. But aren’t they both characters you would want to follow through a plot?

“Okay,” my courteous questioners admit reluctantly, “I can see where I might want to substitute character-revealing dialogue for merely polite chat, at least in my opening pages, to keep from boring Millicent. But you haven’t answered the rest of my question: how can I make my protagonist likable if she’s embroiled in a conflict from page 1? What if I just show conflict going on around her, without her, you know, getting nasty?”

For polite people, you certainly ask pointed questions, courteous ones: it means you’re starting to get the hang of interesting dialogue. As you have just illustrated, one way that a protagonist can politely introduce conflict into a scene is by pressing a point that another party to the conversation wants to brush off.

Nasty? Not at all. Conflictual? Definitely.

Not all conflict entails fighting, you see. Sometimes, it’s mere disagreement — or, in the case of a protagonist whose thoughts the reader hears, silent rebellion. Small acts of resistance can sometimes convey a stronger sense of conflict than throwing an actual punch. (For more suggestions on heightening conflict, please see the CONFLICT-BUILDING category on the list at right.)

When in doubt about whether the conflict is sufficient to keep Millicent’s interest, try raising the stakes for the protagonist in the scene. As long as the protagonist wants something very much at that particular moment, is prevented from getting it, and takes some action as a result, changes are that conflict will emerge, at least internally.

Note, please, that I did not advise ramping up the external conflict, necessarily, especially on a first page. In a first-person or tight third-person narrative, where the reader is observing the book’s world from behind the protagonist’s eyeglasses, so to speak, protagonists who are mere passive observers of their own lives are unfortunately common in submissions; if Millicent had a nickel for every first page she read where the protagonist was presented as little more than a movie camera taking in ambient conditions, she wouldn’t be working as a poorly-paid screener; she’d own her own agency.

If not her own publishing house.

Protagonist passivity is not the best way to grab her attention, in other words. Because this is such a pervasive manuscript megaproblem, I have written about it quite a bit in this forum; for more tips on how to make your protagonists more active, please see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category on the list at right.

Should any of you NF writers out there have been feeling a bit smug throughout this spirited little discussion of protagonist passivity, I should add that the conflict insufficiency problem doesn’t afflict only the opening pages of novels. It’s notoriously common in memoirs, too — as often as not, for the two reasons we discussed above: wanting to make the narrator come across as likable and presenting the narrator as a mere observer of events around him.

Trust me on this one: in both fiction and nonfiction, Millicent will almost always find an active protagonist more likable than a passive one. All of that predictable niceness quickly gets just a little bit boring.

Mix it up a little. Get your protagonist into the game from the very top of page 1.

I have more to say on the subject of boring Millicent, but I feel a well-deserved post-meeting nap coming on. Sleep well, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part V: jumping through those flaming hoops


I can already hear some of my long-time readers groaning over the reappearance of the dreaded tiger-jumping-through-a-flaming-hoop graphic which, as some have pointed out loudly and often, is rather distracting to the eye. I’m afraid there’s no help for it: this graphic makes me smile every time I see it.

I tend to trot it out around this time of year, when I typically spend a few weeks running over how to prepare entries for literary contests, as entry season is going to be upon us soon. If any mere picture can convey the peculiar combination of talent and almost psychotic attention to detail required to win one of the major US literary contests for unpublished work, it’s this.

Why, you ask? Well, are you sitting down?

The fact is, an experienced contest judge’s level of nit-pickiness often makes our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s reading habits seem positively generous by comparison. Millicent may have been casting her eyes over queries and manuscript submissions for a few years; since most literary contest judges are the kind of dedicated perennial volunteer that forms the backbone of every good writers’ association that throws a conference, it’s not uncommon for a judge to be reviewing entries in the same contest for decades.

Which means, in practical terms, that by the time a judge sits down to evaluate your entry, s/he may have seen the same common first page error thousands upon thousands of times.

Did I just sense eyebrows shooting scalpward out there? Yes, conclusion-jumpers, I do mean precisely that: like the average submission, most contest entries disqualify themselves from finalist consideration before the end of the first page.

Often, they do this by dint of breaking contest rules, forgetting to grammar- and spell-check, and just plain not knowing about the strictures of standard format for manuscripts (and if you didn’t know that there WAS a standard format for submissions, I implore you to rush right over to the category list on the lower right-hand side of this page, select the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED headings, and invest a vitally important hour in learning how to make your submissions look professional). But like every other kind of submission, contest entries tend to exhibit certain patterns of mistake.

What does this mean for our purposes in this series? Why, that most of the rejection reasons we’re discussing in this series, the red flags that will cause Millicent to charge like a bull at the very sight of them, are tried-and-true anti-favorites that will also set your garden-variety contest judge’s hooves a-stomping.

So I don’t feel too many qualms re-running this series (which I notice that I have been punching up before I post, so I suppose they are technically new posts) during the time of year I have historically devoted to polishing contest entries to a high sheen. Yes, I still think entering literary contests is a dandy way for an aspiring writer to rack up some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, the credentials that make Millicent sit up and take a query letter seriously); as an author who landed her agent by winning the nonfiction book category of the country’s largest writers’ association’s contest, I would be the last to deny that walking off with top honors can prove very helpful to a writing career.

But this year, if no one objects too violently, I would prefer to spend the rest of the winter talking about craft and presentation issues like the ones in this series. Addressing these topics will help contest entrants, anyway, as well as everyone else who plans to submit her writing to professional scrutiny. And call me zany, but I suspect that fewer of my readers than usual will have the dosh to invest in contest entries this year.

So please pay close attention over the next couple of weeks, contest entrants: these rejection reasons apply equally well to the first pages of entries, too.

Looking over today’s post, I considered cutting out the early part where I talk about dealing with an editorial memo — for those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s the letter outlining requested changes an editor at a publishing house provides an author to guide the pre-publication revision process — for a novel of mine. It’s a trifle off-topic, admittedly, but as I know many of you are curious about what happens to a manuscript after agents and editors have control of it, I decided to leave this section.

Enjoy! Or if learning new and more terrifying problems a submission might have isn’t precisely your idea of a rollicking good time, I hope you find it helpful!

Were you surprised to see that I took the entire weekend off? It’s part of a new plan of mine, called GETTING A LIFE, over and above my writing. Having just finished a major revision — and composed a list of what I had and had not revised at the editor’s suggestion — I felt the need to, well, not work my usual 7-day week this week.

Call me wacky.

“Wait just a second,” I hear some of you cry. “A list of changes in the manuscript that the editor has in her hot little hand? Couldn’t she just look at it to check if you made all of the requested alterations? And why on earth would any sane person ask a writer to produce such a list immediately after completing a revision, when the writer is likely both to be exhausted and a trifle touchy about her choices?”

A list of revisions is not all that unusual a request, once an editor at a major house is involved with a book. Essentially, it’s a time-saving technique. (Remember earlier in this series, when I was telling you about how busy such people are? Well…) Since manuscript changes are often quite subtle, and the editor is not going to sit down and read the old version and the new side-by-side (sorry to be the one to break that to you), many agents like to have the author provide the editor with a list, to forestall the objection that not enough of the requested changes were made. Also, in the unlikely (a-hem) event that the editor does not have time to read the whole thing again, with such a list in hand, it would be technically possible for an editor to flip through and see what changed very quickly.

Essentially, the list is the equivalent of having the author produce the kind of 1- or 2-page report that editorial assistants routinely provide on a project being considered.

I’m giving you a heads-up about it now, because very frequently, such a request comes as the proverbial ball out of left field to the writer, who is then left scrambling to meet a revision deadline AND producing a list of changes. If you know it’s a possible future request, you can just keep a list while you are revising. Clever, no?

To forestall follow-up questions from those prone to borrowing trouble: no, Virginia, no one in the industry will ever ask you for a list of the revisions you performed BEFORE they saw the manuscript in the first place. So unless you want to get in practice maintaining such a list (not a bad idea, actually), there’s really no reason to keep track of your changes in such a concrete way until after you sign with an agent.

But thereafter, it can be very, very helpful to be able to say, “What do you mean, I didn’t take your advice seriously? Here’s a list of what I changed at your behest!” and be able to back it up.

Okay, back to demystifying the Idol list. (If that sounds as though I have suddenly begun speaking in tongues, please see the first post in this series.) I know I’ve been harping on it at some length now, but my theory is that general writing advice is not all that useful as long as it remains, well, general. I think it’s important to take the overarching principles and show how they might be applied to a specific manuscript.

That being said, today’s group of manuscript problems is the most literal, and thus the easiest to remove from a manuscript. (And the masses rejoice!)

These are the rejection reasons that are based upon sheer repetition: any agent in the biz has not only seen these phenomena before at least 1,147 times — and thus will automatically assume that a submission that contains them on the first page is not a piece of fresh writing that might take the literary world by storm — but has, in all probability, seen any particular one at least once already on that same DAY of screening.

So best to avoid ’em, I always say.

I know, I know: a great deal of the writing advice out there, including mine, is about standardizing your manuscript prior to submission. But adhering to standard format and avoiding certain common mistakes is, perhaps counterintuitively, a way to make the individuality of your writing shine more. To put it the way my grandmother would: fashion can make almost anyone look good, but if a woman is truly beautiful, wearing conventional clothing will only make it more obvious that it is the woman, and not the clothes, who caught the eye of the observer.

(Need I add that my grandmother was excessively pretty, and that a great many of her metaphors were style-related?)

The rejection reasons listed below are something different: they are common shortcuts that writers use, and thus, not particularly good ways to make your writing stand out from the crowd. Using the numbering from the original list, they are:

9. The opening sentence(s) 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, screaming (an ever-popular choice) or otherwise.

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. Specifically singled out: our old pal, a character’s long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame, her shapely legs.

21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a first-person or tight third-person narrative to describe her long red or blonde hair, his flashing green eyes, his well-muscled frame, etc.

Why do I identify these as shortcuts, and not clichés? Well, obviously, the clichés are clichés, but the rest are the kind of logical shorthand most of us learned in our early creative writing classes. To name but a few:

Introduce the character –which manifests as My name is… and/or My age is…).

Show perspective — This can’t be happening.

Add a twist — And then I woke up.

The cumulative result of decades of such good generalized advice is that agents and their screeners see these particular tropes so often that they might as well be clichés. They definitely don’t scream from the page, “This is a writer who is doing fresh and interesting new things with the English language!” or “This story is likely to have a twist you’ve never seen before,” at any rate, and when a screener is looking to thin the reading pile, those are most emphatically not the messages you want to be sending.

Another early English-class lesson has shown up with remarkable frequency on this list. Guesses, anyone?

Hint: the applicable rejection reasons are #9, the opening contained the phrases,My name is… and/or My age is…, #14, a character’s long red or blonde hair, and
#21, the character spotting him/herself in a mirror.

Congratulations, all of you graduates of Creative Writing 101: they all stem from the oft-repeated admonition to provide physical descriptions of the character right away.

As in within the first nanosecond of their appearing in a scene, so the reader doesn’t waste any time at all picturing ‘em before being told precisely what they look like. The rise of television and movies have rendered this particular piece of writing advice practically universally observed in submissions. After all, almost without exception, viewers’ first impression of an important character in a TV show or movie is when he walks into frame.

Also, I suspect, a lot of us read short stories and books in our formative years that used the age, sex, and/or gender (yes, they’re different things, contrary to the way one usually sees them on government forms: sex is biological, gender is learned) as THE twist. I, personally, have never gotten over my disappointment that Stanley Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ 1963 novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE glossed over the single most shocking line in the book, when we learn that the thief, rapist, and murderer who has been narrating the story is only 15 years old.

Hey, that was still shocking, back in the 1960s. I encountered the book a decade and a half later, but still, you should have seen my fifth-grade teacher’s face when I told her about Alex’s age in my book report.

Basically, all of these rejection reasons share the same underlying objection: there’s nothing wrong with providing some physical description of your characters right off the bat, of course, but by all means, be subtle about it. And need a full description come on page 1?

Yes, yes, I know that movies and TV have accustomed us to knowing what a character looks like from the instant he’s introduced, but is there a particular reason that a READER’S first experience of a character need be visual?

We are left to wonder: why are characters so seldom introduced by smell? Or touch?

But no: day in, day out, screeners are routinely introduced to characters by front-loaded visual images, a good third of them bouncing off reflective vases, glasses of water, and over-large silver pendants. We’ve all seen it: the first-person narrator who catches sight of his own reflection in a nearby mirror in order to have a reason to describe himself.

Or the close third-person narration that, limited to a POV Nazi-pleasing single-character perspective, requires that the character be reflected in passing sunglasses, a handy lake, a GAP window, etc., so that he may see himself and have a reason to note his own doubtless quite familiar physical attributes.

Just once, could a passerby gag on a hero’s cloud of cologne?

Setting aside for a moment just how common the reflective surface device is — in the just over two hours of the Idol session, it happened often enough to generate laughs from the audience, so multiply that by weeks, months, and years of reading submissions, and you’ll get a fair idea — think about this from the screener’s perspective. (Did your tongue automatically start to feel burned by that latte?) That screener is in a hurry to find out what the novel’s story is, right?

So ask yourself: is that harried reader likely to regard superadded physical description of the protagonist as a welcome addition, or as a way to slow the process of finding out what the story is about? And how is she likely to feel about that, 5 minutes into her ostensible lunch break?

I know; it’s disillusioning. But as I keep reminding you, no one in the industry regards the submitted version of a manuscript as the final version. Nor should you.

Just jump through that flaming hope now. If you’re absolutely married to an upfront physical description, you can always add it back in to a subsequent draft.

The last remaining reason — #12, the opening paragraph rife with jargon — is, too, a shortcut, usually a means to establish quickly that the character presented as a doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, President of the United States, etc., is in fact a — wait for it — doctor, lawyer, police officer, soil engineer, or President of the United States.

However, how often do you think a screener — or any other reader, for that matter — gets a couple of lines into a novel, then throws it down in disgust, exclaiming, “There’s just not enough esoteric technical talk here! I just do not believe that this character actually is a doctor/lawyer/police officer/soil engineer/President of the United States! If only there were more jargon properly interesting only to those actually involved in those professions!”

Doesn’t happen.

The opposite, however, does: when there’s too much profession-specific word usage right off the bat, it can be very off-putting for the reader. And for the screener. With predictable results.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? Is it possible that some of you saying, “But people actually do talk like that in real life!”

Yes, they do. There are also plenty of people who say, “Um…” at the end of every other sentence, and mobs of nice folks who interlard every conversation with, “like” and “ya’ know.” Heck, there are millions of people in the world who speak Estonian — yet you would not even consider submitting a manuscript to an English-speaking agent or editor where every third word was in that beautiful language, would you? Even if your story were actually set in Estonia?

Save it — if not entirely, then at least until after page 5. Or after you have successfully cleared the submission hurdle.

We’re just whipping through this list, aren’t we? Soon, all of our first pages will be so snazzy that none of us will get rejected until page 2. In that happy hope, keep up the good work!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part IV: we have a schedule to keep here, people!

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!

Seeing submissions from the other side of the desk, part III: would you mind holding this massive grain of salt for me?

Yes, Virginia, that is indeed exactly what it says on the box: a massive grain of salt. You’re going to want to have it on hand for today’s installment in our series on reasons so many submitted manuscripts get rejected on page 1.

How many is so many, you ask? Well, the actual percentage from agency to agency, publishing trend to publishing trend, and even screener to screener, but the last time I conducted informal polling on the subject, the most popular answer amongst US-based agents was, “the vast majority of them.”

Which brings be back one of my perennial caveats to the literal-minded: this is not the definitive list of rejection reasons, so please do not treat it as such. It does, however, include quite a few extremely common rejection triggers that I’ve seldom seen discussed amongst aspiring writers. Do keep your ears perked at conferences for others — trends do change over time and from country to country, and naturally, every agent, like ever other professional reader currently scurrying across the face of the planet, has personal preferences.

All of which is to say: submissions get rejected for a million different reasons, some legitimate, some not. An aspiring writer can’t second-guess every possibility, of course, but it is possible to screen one’s own work for the more common red flags.

Remember, though, that while this list is a pretty good place to start a rigorous look at the first page of your submission, it is just that, a beginning, not a set of absolute standards. Because individuals make rejection decisions, not pre-programmed machines, there’s no such thing as a foolproof, universally-applicable advance test for whether a first page will make it past a screener’s hyper-critical eyes.

Sorry to be the one to tell you that. If breaking into the publishing biz were easy…well, I suspect most of us would be a whole lot happier, but the fact remains, it isn’t.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, the widely-embraced strategy of having an agent who has asked to see pages be the first human being to see a manuscript — or at least the first who is not the author’s relative, bedmate, best friend, or similarly non-objective party — tends not to be a recipe for success. It’s hard to self-edit, and loved ones tend to have an even harder time giving critical feedback. As I shall argue in the series to follow this one, impartial feedback can be immensely helpful in weeding out the problems one might not see in one’s own work.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I?

For today, let me limit myself to this: all any aspiring writer can do to prepare for the broad array of preferences amongst agents is to select those who are most likely to be receptive to her work, take extraordinary care to make her manuscript the best it can possibly be (which includes SPELL-CHECKING, people!), and try to weed out the most common red flags.

All fired up to get at ‘em? Good. Happy reading!

The last couple of days’ posts have been kind of in-your-face, haven’t they? Sorry about that — it’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid, when the ruling out of submissions is the subject. It makes us all feel as if we’ve been mauled by angry wildcats.

A cougar isn’t all that likely to give the individual he’s mauling a good explanation for why he’s doing it, either, I’m told.

Still, there’s no need to despair: to succeed in this business, all you need to do is make your initial pages technically perfect, fresh without being weird, and not hit either any of the pet peeves listed on the Idol list (if that last reference seemed opaque to you, please see the first post in this series) or personal ones that the agent in question might have. Your characters need to be original, your premise interesting, and your plot riveting, beginning from Paragraph 1. Oh, and you need to be lucky enough not to submit your brilliant novel about an airline pilot on the day after the agent/screener/editorial assistant/editor has had his/her heart broken by one.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, my work is done here. Let me know how it all turns out!

Okay, so it’s not such a piece of cake: it’s a genuinely tall order, and a long list of don’t can be very, very intimidating. Before you throw up your hands, let’s break down that earlier list of rejection reasons into bite-sized chunks.

The first thing to realize about this list of agents’ pet peeves is that some of them are, in fact, personal pet peeves, not necessarily industry-wide red flags. The trick is recognizing which ones. Right off the bat, a cursory glance at the list, combined with a few decades of experience, lead me to identify the following as probably individual preferences, rather than endemic rejection triggers:

15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life.
25. The first lines were dialogue.
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
37. The story is corny.
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.
46. The story is written in the second person.
47. The story is written in the first person plural.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.

What makes me these are not widely-shared rejection criteria? Well, observation of what kinds of manuscripts have and haven’t been getting picked up by agents in recent years, but also, critical analysis. Allow me to explain.

Before I start dissecting them, however, one reservation: just because these particular pet peeves are agent-specific does not mean that you should simply disregard them. As with any conference-gleaned wisdom, if you are planning to submit to any of the agents on that particular panel, it would behoove you to take them very seriously indeed: one of the reasons that savvy writers go to conferences, after all, is to pick up information about the specific likes and dislikes of particular agents, right?

Use this information strategically, to help target your queries and submissions to the agents most likely to enjoy your work. But do not, I implore you, fall into the oh-so-common trap of regarding a single individual agent’s expression of a personal preference as a permanent bellwether for the entire industry.

When you’re listening to a panel of agents and/or editors, there are a couple of signals that will alert you to something being an individual’s pet peeve, rather than a general rule. First — and this happens surprisingly frequently — the person uttering it will actually say, “Maybe it’s just my pet peeve, but…” or “It really bugs me when…” Call me zany, but I’ve found that it’s a pretty safe bet that what is said next is a personal preference.

I know: it’s subtle.

Also — and this actually happened on the panel that inspired this series of posts — sometimes an agent will express an opinion, and the other agents will guffaw at him, fall over backwards in surprise, choke on their Diet Cokes, slap him across the face and tell him he’s an idiot, etc.

Again, all of these are pretty good indicators that we’re not talking about a widely-recognized agency norm here. Keep your eyes peeled for such understated clues, conference-goers.

Take, for instance, #25, where an agent red-flagged a submission because the first lines were dialogue. Now, this is a pretty sweeping criticism, isn’t it? A lot of very good books open with dialogue. So how did the people in the Idol audience know it was this particular agent’s pet peeve? Well, he began his critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but…” And after he said it, the agent sitting next to him turned to him and said, “Really?”

Starting to get the hang of this?

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it.

Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

Just moving on can be very, very tough for writers who have just spent a small fortune on a conference, pitched to five agents, and had requested materials rejected. Yet at even the best conference, no group of agents small enough to fit in the same room, much less on the same panel, are a representative sample of how the entire industry will react to your work.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: I know it’s discouraging, but it just doesn’t make statistical sense to throw up one’s hands after a single round of rejections.

To put this in perspective, it’s not uncommon for an agent to submit a client’s work to as many as 50 different editors. If #48 says yes, that’s a win and everybody goes out for drinks to celebrate, just as surely as if editor #1 had said yes. Should you really be any less tenacious in marketing your book to agents than you would expect your agent to be in marketing it to editors?

As my last agent was fond of saying in times of strife and slammed editorial doors, you can’t gain a true sense of what the market value of a book is until a whole lot of editors have seen it.

The same goes for agents. Make your submissions as professional as possible, of course, but keep trying.

Now that you know why it is so important to differentiate between what you absolutely must change on your first page and what you should change for a particular agent’s eyes, let’s go back to our list of rejection reasons. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Why is that particular one problematic?” Often, the most obvious answer will be that it’s the agent’s personal opinion.

Let’s apply this test to #15, the opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. On the panel, an agent with a well-known blog cited this reason quite often, but neither of the other agents mentioned it. (Did that fact alone make your personal-preference antennae perk up, campers?) She gave those who were listening another clue: a couple of times, she cast this objection as, “Well, I’VE never done what the character does here…”

Ding ding ding!

Even if she had not been kind enough to flag this as a personal preference, we probably could have figured it out. In this context, she specifically singled out a character who shook his head to clear an image or bring himself back to reality, as in, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.” Now, as an editor myself, I do have to admit, this is an action that one sees occur with GREAT frequency in manuscripts; in fact, I suspect one could make a pretty good case without trying very hard for labeling it as a cliché.

However, this is not how the rejection reason was phrased, was it? No, it was cast as this is something a normal person would never do. Unless we’re talking about psychopathic behavior, a statement like this is almost certainly based upon personal experience. Like everyone’s opinion of beauty, everyone’s opinion of normal is different.

Yes, I did just say that normal is in the eye of the beholder. Got a problem with that?

So what this critique is really saying is, people in my circles and from my background don’t do such things. Fine; good to know: now we can target the submission away from the agent who cannot imagine doing such a thing and toward an agent who can.

Getting the hang of this yet?

The same logic test can be applied, with the same result, to #33 (agent can’t identify with the conflict shown, which is obviously based upon personal taste) and #37 (the story is corny, which must be based upon the observer’s background and worldview). Note the preference, and move on to the next agent. If you get the same response from a few different agents, it might be worth a second look at your opening pages for plausibility.

Actually, that’s not a bad idea in general, since, unfortunately, the vast majority of rejection letters contain no reference whatsoever to the actual reason the agent decided to pass. If your opening contains a real jaw-dropper, it’s possible that you’d never hear about it directly, even in the course of years of submission and rejection.

Yet another reason that getting objective feedback on your work BEFORE you submit it to professional scrutiny is a really, really good idea, right?

Plausibility problems can be particularly tough for a self-editor to catch, as presumably, if a writer includes an incident in a manuscript — like, say, the protagonist’s shaking her head to clear a thought — he personally finds it entirely plausible. For the sake of your revision, though, it is probably worth bearing in mind that an awfully high percentage of NYC-based agents and editors are from upper-middle clad backgrounds, and thus graduated from rather similar English departments at rather similar liberal arts colleges, mostly in the northeastern part of the country. Their brothers (and sisters) dated one another’s sisters (and brothers); their former roommates are mostly from similar backgrounds and hold similar jobs. One may reasonably expect, then, their notions of plausibility to run along similar lines.

If you can’t imagine reading your submission from such a point of view, it might behoove you to find a first reader with a background that permits subjecting your manuscript to what I like to call the Minor Ivy Plausibility Meter: would a 25-year-old who had never lived more than ten miles from the agency where she works — not at all out of the question for denizens of New York-based agencies — find this believable, or would she huff, “Oh, come on…” into her latte?

If you do not be a 25-year-old New Yorker born and bred — and, more to the point, if your protagonist is neither — or if your story takes place in any other part of the world, I would strenuously advise applying this test to at least the first few pages of your submission. Speaking as a writer who has spent hours explaining to New Yorkers what a logging truck is, something any Pacific Northwest 6-year-old could pick out of a police lineup (“That’s it, officer. That’s the truck with the logs!“), you will be happier in the long run if you identify and clarify references that they might not get.

The personal preference test, believe it or not, can also be applied to reasons associated with voice choice. Yes, I know: since it’s a technical matter, it seems as though rules should govern whether it’s acceptable, right?

Not really. There are plenty of agents and editors who don’t like the first person voice much, and, as we saw on the list, other voices may raise hackles: 46. The story is written in the second person47. The story is written in the first person plural. What could such statements be OTHER than personal preferences?

#48 (the narrator speaks directly to the reader, making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story) is also a personal preference about narrative voice, albeit a more subtle one: for some readers, including the agent who cited this rejection reason, a first-person narration that breaks the third wall is jarring, a distraction from the story. However, there are plenty examples of published books that have used this device to great comic or dramatic effect.

Despite that fact, I would not send the agent that expressed this preference THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, for instance.

Now, I suspect that those of you intrepid souls out there devoted enough to literary experimentation to write a narrative in the first person plural (like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES) or second person (like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY) are probably already aware that your work will not be to everyone’s taste, any more than excellent fantasy writing will be to the taste of an agent who prefers hard-bitten realism. But this doesn’t mean that the experiment isn’t worth trying, is it?

Just choose your querying targets accordingly. May I suggest applying first to those who have represented novels with similar voice choices?

I should wrap up for today, but before I do, I want to take a quick run at another group of reasons, #42 (the opening scene is too violent), #43 (the opening scene is too gross), and #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). The first two are obviously in the eye of the beholder: a quick look at any bookstore will tell you that there is no shortage of violent material.

So none of these could possibly be industry-wide peeves, right?

Actually, all three are quite common ones, for the excellent reason that such a high percentage of novel submissions (and often memoir as well) open with scenes of violence. That’s not accidental, of course: if you’ve taken a writing class or attended a literary conference within the last 15 years, you have been exposed to the admonition to grab the reader with action right off the bat. Not a bad idea, but unfortunately, like so much good advice, some of its adherents take it too literally and too far.

And because 99% of the writers out there have had this advice beaten into their brains, too, agents see a LOT of shocking things on first pages. A whole lot of violent death gets strewn across the opening paragraphs that cross Millicent’s desk.

Translation: a super-violent opening scene, then, will not necessarily make your submission unique.

Professional readers’ individual tolerance for violence varies quite a bit, however, so if you are lucky enough to hear one speak (or see one’s blog) about it, pay close attention where that agent draws a line. There’s quite a prominent agent (who has asked that I not report here the things he’s been going around saying at conferences for years, at least not with his name attached) who stands up at every conference he attends and announces that he doesn’t want to see any book that contains scenes with violence to children. While this decree almost invariably produces some scattered groans from his audience (he’s not very tactful), he’s actually doing the people who write violent pieces a favor by being up front about it: he’s trying to prevent them from wasting their time and his in querying him.

The vast majority of agents are not, alas, as up front about their preferences on the subject — which is why I slipped in #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets).

Yes, this is a matter of personal preference — how much violence is too much and how much is just right is in the eye of the beholder, just as much as ideal porridge temperatures were on the tongues of the Three Bears — but this one happens to be a preference that at LOT of editors share, and for good reason: it can be very, very hard to market a book that features a lot of violence against wee ones. And don’t even get me started about how hard it would be to sell a cozy mystery with a dead cat in it…

My overall point has, I hope, become clear. Go ahead and yell it out, class.

And the masses cry, “Never kill off the detective’s pet kitty!”

Well, yes, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb, but I was really thinking of a broader point about submission and conference lore: not everything that pops out of an expert’s mouth should be regarded as a hard-and-fast rule. Use your judgment, or you might end up staggering under the weight of such a heap of pronouncements that you’ll be terrified of breaking a rule every time you sit down at your keyboard.

I’ll try to demystify more of the rejection list tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What do you mean, most submissions are rejected on page 1? Isn’t that a trifle…judgmental?

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.
34. Confusing.
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!