Why a novel is rejected on the first page

6df8452d9eb34a2197f320fa67f44201One of the most interesting aspects of the recent writer’s conference was a workshop titled Writers Got Talent. Any interested person could submit multiple copies of page one of their manuscript. They had to be anonymous, with only the genre given, and only one page long.

Four agents sat at a table in front, reading each submission silently as the keynote speaker, Chuck Sambuchino, read them to us, the nervous writers in the audience. Whenever an agent got to a point where she would have stopped reading that submission in real life (as would be the case with an emailed, unsolicited query), she raised her hand. (The agents were all female.) Once three agents had their hands raised, Chuck stopped. Then each agent talked about why she would’ve stopped reading. They also shared what they liked about each submission, too.

A first page of a double-spaced page is approximately 17 lines, 200-300 words long. That’s not much compared with a novel. (My last two have run to around 84,000 words, which is fine for my genre.) But that’s long enough for the agents to know if they want to continue reading.

I’d say there were about 35-40 submissions. Only about 4 submissions survived the entire 1st page being read. Four. And that wasn’t only one agent rejecting the others, but three out of the four agents saying, nope, wouldn’t bother.

One agent raised her hand when the genre was announced. “I can’t sell dystopian YA anymore,” she explained. “Editors aren’t acquiring it right now.” Others had only a line or two read (ouch!), while still others survived until close to the end. Most readings were stopped about mid-way through the first page. That’s 8-10 lines into the book.

I scribbled down a list of reasons for rejections. Some were mentioned multiple times. Here, I’ve tried to group together related reasons, though some weren’t easy to categorize. But most fell into two broad categories: boring and TMI.

Boring

  • Confusion. Not enough detail about the protagonist to relate to him. No idea who the protagonist is (Male or female? Age?) Boring details. Too passive/no action. No protagonist on first page.
  • Opened with the weather. (This was mentioned multiple times.) Narrator talked about breathing. “Action” that isn’t significant. Needed more details to get the time period for historical fiction.
  • Not starting in the right place. (In reference to several paragraphs describing the protagonist having breakfast before the story properly begins.)
  • Clunky internal dialogue. Doesn’t have voice. Overly familiar, non-original negative rhetoric. (“School sucks.” Um, that’s not exactly profound.) Describing self too forwardly (Telling rather than showing). Tone sounded middle grade rather than YA, protagonist sounded like a junior higher rather than a senior in high school. Dialogue must sound authentic. YA voice needs to have a sense of immediacy.
  • Lots of italics. No white space/weird typeface/no indents (It was hard to read.) Overuse of adverbs/too wordy. Wandering verb tenses. Not edited for length. Clunky writing. Subject-object confusion. (They pointed out the archaic use of “said he.”) Repetitive descriptions. Unnecessary dialogue tags. Present tense. (Be careful with this, they warned. It can work, but it’s tricky.) If you have to pause for breath in the middle of a sentence, then that indicates that you need to vary the sentence length in your text.

Too Much Information

  • Too info-dump-y. Too much focus on sensory details; I couldn’t get a sense of the protagonist’s character. Too many names; it was unclear which character is the main one to follow.
  • Be careful with pop culture references (This dates the material quickly. Also, it dates the author. If the reader doesn’t know the reference, they won’t understand the significance.)
  • Prologues aren’t usually needed. Starting with an emotional breakdown from the protagonist, before the reader knows why they ought to care about this character. (This was in reference to a female protagonist having a breakdown in her car before we find out that she’s at an abortion clinic, hearing protesters, and trying to talk herself into going inside for an abortion.)

Two special notes:

On religion:

Super strong religious beginning may be too much. Focus on the characters first and avoid oversimplification of “sides.” (This was in reference to religious LGBT fiction. They liked that genre idea, but opening with a preacher’s anti-gay rant might throw off readers who agree with the preacher, only to find that he’s the antagonist and a stereotype.)

Be careful with religion. If you’re making up a religion (say, in fantasy/SF/etc.) and base it on a real life religion, then change it enough so it doesn’t look like you’re taking a shot at it. (This referred to a piece describing a fictional religion that was exactly like Islam.)

On the “literary” genre label:

Be careful with referring to your own work “literary.” Let others call your work literary. Too often, it’s an excuse not to edit for length! It also can indicate a big-headed egotistical author. The label alone isn’t enough to make them stop reading, though.

Finally, a positive: They liked humor! If you made them laugh, that was a plus.

(Yes, this seems overwhelming. Yes, it seems nit-picky. But remember, an agent might have fifty-plus submissions in her inbox on any given day, and only a handful are worth pursuing. They’re looking for those works and ultimately, for authors they want to represent.)

I have to admit, I felt sorry for the authors whose pieces were dismissed by the agents after only a line or two. But as the agents pointed out, this exercise isn’t completely true to life. They do read the query letter first, so a strong premise might make them keep reading past a shaky start. They mentioned that often, if the first page (or paragraph) isn’t great, they’ll skip a few lines or glance through later pages in the submitted material.

Still, the same standards apply in those cases. If the query doesn’t catch their attention, then even a brilliant novel might not be read. And if they scroll through the 1st 5 pages and find the same Page 1 problems plaguing the rest of it, then you can expect a form rejection coming your way.

P.S.: In case you’re wondering and at the risk of bragging, my first page survived, despite bearing the “literary suspense” label. At least it gave me a good excuse to introduce myself to the agents and reassure them that I’m not an egotistical author; a writer friend had given it that label! I still consider it more women’s fiction than suspense.  

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24 thoughts on “Why a novel is rejected on the first page

  1. THAT’S HUUUUUUUUGEEEE!
    Brag away, girl!!!
    Although let’s nix the word “brag” and use another, more positive one:
    SHARE away! Because that’s fantastic, Laura – it truly is, and I know you’re humble, but I grant you permission to share away to your hearts’s content that your page beat those odds.
    I’m so stoked for you!!!!!
    You’ve been working very hard for years on you writing, so let that significant success soak in.

    Hugs from your resident, virtual cheerleader!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Dyane-the-cheerleader! I was really happy. The agents were so quick to reject so many pieces that I was certain there would be something one of them wouldn’t like. Very happy about surviving. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. p.s. All the information you share is so helpful – I wish you went to the memoir workshop if they had one, LOL. Although there are many similarities between writing fiction and memoir, so I’m told in all my how-to books etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There wasn’t a memoir workshop. The conference was for all kinds of writing, though the Writers Got Talent was only for narrative pieces (memoir or fiction). I think we did have a memoir and it either survived or came close to it; it was very well written.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Congrats on surviving! The results were about the same at Chuck’s workshop here in Phoenix in Nov. 2014. I submitted a page, but it didn’t get chosen to be read. Many that did had problems similar to what you mentioned here. What I learned helped me rewrite the first chapters of the NaNo project I was doing then that I’m now rewriting. I’m currently polishing and writing a query and synopsis.

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    1. Thanks! I think the workshop was small enough that every submitted piece got read; we only had around 90 attendees and many didn’t submit pieces, I think. I learned a lot from that workshop; I’ve started revising the 3rd draft of my 4th novel to better reflect what I learned. Good luck on the query and synopsis! BTW, if you have to write a one-page synopsis, I found a good blog post that helped me a lot. http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2012/04/17/how-to-write-a-1-page-synopsis/ Her method wouldn’t work for novels structured in a non-traditional way, such as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, but for most novels, I think it would.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yay, you made it another step closer to getting an agent and getting published! (Plus you gave us some great insights on the process, so you have that going for you too.)

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    1. Thanks, Tim. I really learned a lot during that workshop; in fact, I changed the opening of my 3rd draft of my 4th novel (my WIP, not the one I pitched) because I realized that I started the novel in the wrong place. It’s better now, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lucie! I’m always glad to pass on whatever I know. Like I’ve told a few other people, I rewrote the opening of my WIP because I realized, thanks to these agents, that while my 3rd novel might’ve passed their scrutiny, my WIP wouldn’t have: it started in the wrong place!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Laura, I love it when you share this kind of insider info. So interesting about all the reasons manuscripts are abandoned early — and congratulations on yours surviving the cut! 🙂

    The issue of starting in the wrong place is really interesting to me. I’m currently working (make that labouring excruciatingly) on a short story, and I spent so much time setting up the opening scene … and now, based on where the story’s going, I may have to cut that whole section. That’s really tough for me, both b/c I like it and b/c I’m afraid I might be making the wrong decision! Of course I can just save it in my deleted excerpts file in case I need it again … but I just find knowing where to start SO difficult.

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    1. Jeannie, I’m in the same position as you are. I LOVE my 4th novel’s opening; it came to me from out of the blue while I was in carpool line one day, and set the course of the novel and revealed so much about the 1st person protagonist. Unfortunately, I’m going to cut it. Two drafts have shown me that her conflict wasn’t with the person I originally thought it was with. But it’s still valuable. I have a “scraps” file for all of the deleted sections/parts/paragraphs for each draft, so it’s not disappearing forever. But it’s still hard . . .

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  6. This is a great breakdown! I was in a session like this at PPWC and it was SO enlightening!

    I’m actually an intern at a literary agency — my job is sorting through queries, rejecting the worst, and requesting the best. I blog everything I’m learning, though I keep it anonymous to almost everyone to protect myself from backlash (but I know you’re not a troll, haha!). This was my post on the 3 things I usually reject for:

    https://intheinbox.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/why-you-were-rejected/

    I’m impressed by all your experience, from judging to attending conferences. Experienced writers like you stand out in the query inbox in a good way 🙂

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    1. Hi, Liz, thanks for the comment. How interesting to have an internship at a literary agency; it sounds a lot like what I do with Ruminate, actually. I vote yes, no, or maybe, based on the story. I don’t get to choose which of the yesses or maybes gets published–bummer–but it’s been very valuable experience. 🙂 I know your experience will make you stand out, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. So helpful! I’m working with an aspiring author who is in the middle of drafting a cyberpunk fantasy series and the TMI problem has come up more than once. Too much undefined jargon, too many names, and an excess of world-building detail all clutter up those opening pages.

    Liked by 1 person

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