Do Literary Agents Reject Your Submission After Reading One Line?

I often get asked, “what makes you auto-reject a submission?” This is difficult to respond to as the answer is complicated and multi-layered. There isn’t a magical rule that will somehow make your submission “safe” from being discarded after the first glance. Anything from personal taste, to current list space, to the market can factor into a quick rejection. This is why a chorus of agents and editors and published writers are always singing “don’t take rejection personally.” Easier said than done, right?

There are many things you can do to ensure your submission has the best chance of being considered further. There are posts upon posts on how to write a decent query (including one of my own). Follow each agency’s submission rules, know your comparable titles, have an online presence, present yourself as an appealing client, and so on.

Of course none of this matters if the sample pages fail to reel us in. If your pitch does happen to snag my interest, I’m reading the sample. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve passed the query auto-rejection phase. Congratulations! But now those pages have to hold my interest. Yes, I have rejected a submission based on the first sentence and yes, it happens more often than I’d like. But how could you possibly know from the first line? you ask.

Because it’s our job to know.

Sounds arrogant, sure. Believe me, I’ve been there on the other side, thinking it wasn’t fair that agents claimed they rejected a sub based on that first line. But after years of reading the slushpile, editing manuscripts, shopping clients, etc., I’ve been trained to see the level of prose based off that first line. Other agents will tell you the same.

That opening line tells us multiple things about your manuscript. A few examples:

  1. There’s a grammar/spelling/typo mistake
    • you’re inexperienced with basic writing rules or
    • you’re lazy and don’t proofread or
    • you’re impatient and don’t proofread
  2. It’s a poorly constructed sentence
    • same as above
  3. Your character is waking up
    • This is done all the time. It shows your inexperience.
  4. Rhetorical question
    • You have to get the reader to care first before asking them a question. Indicates you may not understand narrative characterization yet.
  5. Your character is running/fighting/breathing hard
    • We don’t know your character yet, so we don’t care what action they are doing. Shows you may not be able to create tension without using action.
  6. There’s a dead body (or another cliche)
    • It’s not shocking as we didn’t know the person before they were dead. Plus it’s been done. A lot. This tells us you may write in a lot of cliches.
  7. The weather is being described
    • I did this in my first novel! *cringes. Shows you may not be able to streamline your world-building using only important details.
  8. A vague “deep” philosophical statement is made
    • Same issue as the rhetorical question.
  9. It’s dialogue
    • This one you’ll get other agents that disagree, but I’m not a fan of dialogue-heavy prose, so the first line as dialogue doesn’t go over well with me. Plus you run the risk of “floating head syndrome.”
  10. Your character sighs, purses their lips, looks at something, shrugs, grins, raises their eyebrow or some other filler action
    • I dislike these filler actions in general, but in that first line they are the biggest tension killers of all. If a filler action is used in the first sentence, no doubt the rest of the manuscript is filled with them.

I could teach an entire semester on the first line, and I’m still fairly fresh in the publishing industry. Imagine what editors and agents who have been reading for 20+ years could glean from that sentence.

Of course, the disclaimer, many writers have done all of these things in their first line and their books are hugely successful. I mean hell, the first client I signed and sold did one of them. But in general, these are a few of the reasons I pass on the first line. Before you get too frustrated, hear me out. It’s not a final judgement on your writing. If your opening line causes me to pass on your project, despite being intrigued by your pitch, it’s not that you are a bad writer, it simply means the pages aren’t ready, or that you aren’t ready.

On a sunny note–if you nail it, that first line can result in a request.

11 Comments

  • Suresh L

    October 31, 2017 at 9:17 pm Reply

    Hi Mary,

    Thanks for a great post. I have a couple of questions and would be delighted if you could address them.

    1. Would the ‘reject after reading one line’ apply to queries too? Do agents do it? (There’s always that long-standing debate on how to begin a query… A personalized first line? Word length and genre? ‘Dive right into story’ opener?)
    2. If there are clear don’ts about the opening line, and if writers still do it, get repped, published and go on to sell a zillion copies, what is the sanctity of the list?

    regards
    Suresh

    • Mary C. Moore

      November 15, 2017 at 5:49 pm Reply

      Hi Suresh,

      Rejecting based on the first line in the query is much rarer. The query would have to have some serious grammatical mistakes or be intelligible. The main reason I reject a query letter off it’s first line is because it’s in the wrong genre (e.g. the query is for non-fiction which I don’t represent).

      And the “clear don’ts” aren’t hard and fast rules, as I state in my blog post near the end. It’s more that these “don’ts” are often indicative of inexperienced writers. Writers who are masters of their craft can often take note of these standards and ignore them, kind of a “know the rules before you break them” idea. However, as most authors in the slush pile are newer/debut, we’re looking for those that have at least honed their craft as much as they can without having that long backlist of published books as experience.

      • Suresh L

        November 15, 2017 at 8:38 pm Reply

        Hi Mary,

        Thanks for the detailed response.

        I’m glad that queries don’t get shot down after a line. (Personally speaking, after having submitted form queries, ‘keep-it-to-the-point’ queries, personalised queries and one page queries, I have hopefully learnt a thing or two about writing a decent query. 🙂 )

        I got what you said about the don’ts. And about breaking them. I suppose at this stage of my writing career, I’m better off playing safe. Thanks again. 🙂

  • Donna Fieldhouse

    September 22, 2017 at 8:16 pm Reply

    Wow. Just read and re-read these ten opening line fails. Don’t get me wrong, it was an eye opener, but doesn’t appear to leave the writer with much to start a story. To be honest reading this has left me gutted. I feel like all the classes and courses I’ve attended have been a waste of time, and I’ve just been sent back to my first year of school. As with most other writers, my fantasy is that I’m a Master Craftsman and pen a pretty mean tale, but if I can’t get an agent to move passed the first line my rejected list is going to get longer and longer. Is there any chance of listing examples that do work?

    Quick question. Have you ever rejected someone based on these opening line fails then kicked yourself because the rest of the book was a number one seller? You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to but I’m curious to know if this does happen.

    Kind regards, Donna.
    Great blog by the way.

    • Mary C. Moore

      September 22, 2017 at 9:51 pm Reply

      Totally understand the feeling. It’s a hard balance, and I swear this was not meant to be harsh. I’m attempting to show the kind of focus and tension needed in that first line. And the overall point is, not that agents always reject on the first line because of xyz, but that 99% of the time if an agent is rejecting your ms after the first line, it simply means it’s not ready. And the more experience an agent (or editor) has, the quicker they can pick up on the state of the writing via the opening sample. In contrast the more experience/practice the writer has, the better their first line will be by default.

      And honestly, no, usually when a book goes on to be a best seller, the reason that I have passed on it in the past is because I didn’t connect with the narrative subjectively, or I didn’t have the space on my list to take it on when it was dropped. When those kinds of projects pass through our submission pile, we can usually spot something about them that’s different (whether we sense that it’s best seller different is another matter). All those stories you hear about famous rejected books, e.g. HP being rejected 17 times etc, if you dig deeper you’ll find that the rejections were usually thoughtful and it’s obvious the rejectors had read at least some of the story.

      My goal with this post was to inspire writers to think on a micro level about their prose itself and not just their current project. Because in the end, the market is always changing, the only constant is that your writing will get better and better the more you study, read, and write. You want to get to a point where agents are passing for market or subjective reasons (and perhaps regretting it later when it’s a best-seller) and not for craft reasons.

      And thank you!

      • Donna Fieldhouse

        September 24, 2017 at 3:25 pm Reply

        Hi Mary,
        Thanks so much for getting back to me on this. I am constantly on sites researching how to write a query, synopsis etc. There are a lot of variations. I try to take them all on board and then pick what I think will work for me. Hence, how I came across your blog.
        Without sounding like I’m sucking up, I want to let you know what you have written here is a really helpful tool for all writers trying to get an agent or publisher. It was a complete slap on the face but one that I think was needed because, as you probably know, when you get a rejection you get no feedback but just a standard reply. I understand the reason for the no feedback. (Gosh you’d never have time to actually agent)
        However not knowing why you’ve been rejected leaves you in a vortex of nothingness and thinking ‘what the hell?’ Then you run through a massive list in your mind. Did I spell something wrong? Was it too explicit, not explicit enough? Was my action scene too weak, too over the top? Is my dialogue all wrong? Did I over kill my victim, yadda, yadda, yadda.
        So what you have done here has answered at least some of those unanswered questions. And now, damn you woman, I have to go back to the drawing board. Well to my computer at least. 🙂
        Cheers,
        Donna

        • Mary C. Moore

          September 24, 2017 at 9:19 pm Reply

          Cheers and best of luck!

  • Melanie

    August 22, 2017 at 7:54 pm Reply

    This is great, Mary, thank you! I was wondering though if you can dedicate a post to the GOOD things that writers are doing right in their queries, manuscripts, etc? Agents focus so much on all the negative things and every little common mistakes that we do, it would be nice and as helpful if there can be some focus on the positive for a change! Thanks!

    • Mary C. Moore

      August 23, 2017 at 12:26 pm Reply

      Writers Digest does a fantastic series on this called “Successful Queries” or queries that worked. And Janet Reid has a list of queries that “got to yes” on the bottom left menu of Query Shark. Hope those help inspire!

  • Jan M Flynn

    August 22, 2017 at 6:22 pm Reply

    As deflating as rejections can be, it helps me to imagine being a literary agent. Thanks for this post!

    • Mary C. Moore

      August 22, 2017 at 7:41 pm Reply

      Happy it helped!

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