Why Do Agents Reject a Manuscript?

I recently attended a writers’ workshop. It was a one-day event, taught by a nationally known publishing industry authority. Attendees received intensive instruction in several areas, including how to pitch your book to an agent, whether to self-publish or go the traditional route, the importance of using social media to market your work regardless of how you publish, and more.

It was all good advice, very comprehensive and mostly high level. Still, there were some cringe-worthy moments. For instance, a few of the attendees’ questions exposed a level of beginner-ship that was almost painful. But that’s okay—you have to start somewhere, and those beginners were doing the right thing, starting to educate themselves.

The highlight of the day for me was the first page critique session. Literary agents formed a panel to provide feedback on as many writers’ first pages as there was time to read. Writers submitted the first page of their novel with genre only, no author name or title. Anonymity would ensure the agents on the panel could be as brutally honest as necessary. The exercise was designed to give writers insight into how many queries an agent has to read and why they reject so many so quickly.

cat-paperworkIt worked like this: the instructor gave each of the agents a copy of the first page to read along with as he read it aloud to the workshop attendees. Each agent would raise their hand as soon as the reader got to a point where they would stop reading, equating to a rejection had it been a page submitted along with a cold query letter. As soon as multiple agents raised their hands, the instructor stopped reading and each agent explained their reason for rejecting.

During the panel discussion, I found myself agreeing with just about every comment the agents made. My own first page was not selected before time ran out, so I’ll never know if the agents would have loved it or hated it. Each note listed below refers to just one page read during the allotted time.

  1. Make a reader care about the main character with at least one small detail that the reader will find relatable.
  2. Not too much action before establishing the main character. Reader must have a reason to care about the character.
  3. Don’t open with weather or too much environmental description.
  4. Passive voice. Don’t.
  5. Don’t repeat details. Boring. Info dumping is bad.
  6. If writing in first person, there must be a stream of consciousness inner monologue.
  7. Genre: LGBT religious fiction. Diversity is hot right now and the genre sounds like a good concept. But this first page was done with a very heavy hand, featuring zealous religious fanatics who are anti-LGBT. Very big turnoff.
  8. Let your characters display traits, don’t tell the reader what kind of person they are.
  9. Cut adverbs. Reduce wordiness and adjectives and get to the point. Less is more when it comes to description. Let the reader’s imagination fill in some blanks.
  10. Specific pop culture references (TV shows, current famous celebrities, brand names, etc.) can date the book, making it obsolete before it even goes to print.
  11. Don’t open with too much internal dialogue. Avoid too much emotional distress without the reader knowing WHY.
  12. Too much sensory detail instead of character does not engage a reader.
  13. “Literary” does not mean wordy, even if the words are big and fancy.
  14. Cut good writing when it doesn’t serve the story or move it forward.
  15. No prologues. If it’s backstory, work it into the narrative as a flashback or some other way.
  16. Avoid date-stamping. It’s too obvious. For instance, don’t say “It was in 1984 when I first met…” Change to “I was 21 when I first met…” or even better, “When I first met…”
  17. Jumping through time and place in the space of a few paragraphs is too jarring. Never say “after all.” SHOW, DON’T TELL.
  18. Read your writing aloud to identify clunky passages, clichés, and odd rhythms.
  19. Remove dialogue tags! Reduce gerunds and participles.
  20. Edit and revise ruthlessly. Delete what the reader doesn’t really need to know.
  21. Make dialogue sound authentic. Don’t let characters recap what the reader already knows. Never use the “as you know, Bob” device to inform readers.

There were a total of 23 first pages read during the one hour and 15 minute session. Two of them were read from beginning to end without any of the agents on the panel raising a hand. Two writers had a shot at having an agent keep reading past their first page. Two.

We are told that agents have so many queries to slog through, they look for reasons to reject, stop reading, and move on to the next. This live exercise captured exactly how that works. If the query letter hooks an agent, the writing on the first page, and into the first few chapters, must be exceptional to engage their interest.

How much work do you put into the first page of your manuscript?  Leave a comment below.

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