One 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.
- 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:
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.