Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why Opening Pages Get Rejected

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Happy Election Day all you US citizens.  That is as political as I’m going to get.

Besides there are much more pressing matters to discuss like reasons why an agent might reject your first few pages.

This is an awesome blog post I came across the other day by author Anne Mini.  Apparently, she went to a writer’s conference and attended a session where attendees submit the first two pages of their manuscripts to be read out loud, and three agents on the panel tell the audience when they would stop reading and why.  Anne, being awesome and amazing, wrote down every reason they gave for not reading on and every reason they gave to read on.  She explains the whole thing much better on her blog post which is really insightful, so make sure you go read it.

There are seventy-four reasons given to not read on, and only eight reasons given to read on.  I don’t think this is a checklist of things to make sure you don’t do, and a lot of them are vague and subjective and while these are reasons that might stop these particular agents, others may not be bothered by them at all. 

But there are a few take home lessons I got from the seventy-four reason not to read on, so I thought I’d share them with you. 

1.  All those little rules that we writers teach each other, really do bug agents.  In fact, several of them may stop an agent from finishing the first page of your manuscript (#11-don’t start with a scene that ends up being a dream, #13-avoid cliché phrases, #21- don’t have a character looking in the mirror to describe him/herself, # 27-don’t open with flashbacks, # 52-aviod saidisms, #70-show don’t tell, just to name a few).

2.  Don’t try to create false tension by withholding information.  There are several examples of this #16, 17, 18, 19, and 20.  These include unnamed items, person, or facts.  As a reader, I also find this very frustrating.

3.  There seems to be these little tricks we writers use to make writing easier for us, and the agents are on to us and don’t like it.  Here are a few examples: 

#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.'" This is something I do actually do in real life.  I do subconsciously shake my head when I’m deep in thought, and I’ve caught myself doing this, so I really don’t think that this action is unrealistic.  But I’m guessing agents must see this kind of phrasing a lot.  I’ve used it in my writing.  I think that this could be a crutch because it is such an easy way to transition from a character being deep in thought to returning to what is presently happening in the story.  So I do think this is something to watch out for.

#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…'"  Once again, I don’t think that these type of phrases should never be used, but they must be overly used or used in the wrong way to annoy agents enough that they won’t read on.

4.  Conflict, conflict, conflict.  A story really needs some sort of conflict right up from the start (see # 6, 32, 33, and 41).  But don’t try too hard (#4, 42, 65, and 69).

 Although I do think that there is a lot to learn from the reasons these pages were rejected, I also think we can learn more by considering why some opens weren’t.  Here are a couple that really stood out to me.

#1 "A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect."

#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."

#8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

But I think this whole list can be summed up in that there was something interesting going on on the page.  Whether it was mysterious, emotional, or engaging.

I know this is a lot to take in and it feels daunting thinking about all the reasons your story might be rejected so quickly, so I want to leave you with my take on how stories should begin.

I believe every story has the right place to begin, and I think for probably most of us aspiring and even published writers, it is really, really hard to find that place.  Sometimes you have to write the whole story before you see it, sometimes you need a little insight from your beta's, and sometimes the beginning just comes to you from the moment you start typing.  

I think it is really important to find that perfect spot and not fall into the trap of easy openings like waking up, character dreaming, or looking in the mirror.  And once you find that spot, you need write it honestly, in the moment of the character, and let the plot points and characterization and world-building fall naturally into place.  Don't force information on the reader, but don't keep it from them either.  Let the story unfold naturally.

And I think if you do that, then it won't matter if you violate one or two or even ten of these reasons for rejection.  You can read this list and shrug it off because that is where and how your story begins.

Not that any of this is as easy as it sounds, but writing is never easy.  



  1. "Writing is never easy"--a truer phrase was never spoken! Great hints. Thanks.

    BTW, I'm so glad I'm not the only one who really does "shake her head to clear it." I actually do that, particularly when I start obsessing about things.

    1. I do that too. I wonder if it comes from reading too many books. Great post and link, MaryAnn.

    2. Yay, I'm not alone. :) I was really surprised when I read that as something people don't really do because I really thought everyone did that.

  2. I'll have to come back to this post in December when it's time to edit my NaNo story. I know my opening could be a lot stronger, and they're always difficult for me. This is a great post, and I can't wait to put it to good use!

  3. I believe a good beginning is important to a book. I don't really know what editors are looking for. I just think of some of the classic opening lines "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." Or "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Good luck all you aspiring authors.

    1. Yes, I do think that beginnings are very important. Not just to attract agents but readers too.

  4. I actually got to go to one of these at a writer's conference in Colorado. It was super, super helpful... but I was not smart enough to take notes. Thanks so much for sharing the link.

    I should also note that many of these things that bother agents bother slush readers too. It's amazing how annoying those saidisms are, for example. There are some writers who use new ones in every piece of dialogue, and it's incredibly distracting.

    1. Wow, Sabrina. I would love to go to one of those or to a writer's conference in general. :)

      I think reading the slush pile would be very helpful to beginning writers because I don't think we can really understand why these little things are so annoying until we actually see what agents and editors are seeing.

      Anne wrote in the link how originality really stood out, and I just think that so many of us aspiring writers are making the same mistakes that the openings just kind of blur together.

      Anyway, that is my guess. I've never actually seen a slush pile. You probably have way more insight on that. :)


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