Articles Tagged with #pubtip

Is Your Story Unique? – Slushpile Notes

Image courtesy of JD Hancock

Part of a literary agent’s job is, sadly, “crushing dreams.” With every rejection I send I know I am causing real pain to another person out there. Joey Franklin stated in his fantastic Poets & Writers article Submit That Manuscript! Why Sending Out Your Work Is So Important, “Neuroscientists have actually identified similarities between our response to rejection and our response to physical pain.” I was equally in total agreement and completely horrified. I’ve had reactions to rejections that lasted hours if not days. But I also send rejections on an almost daily basis. My submission karma is not looking good.

Franklin goes on to express why submitting is so important. It’s a part of the necessary evolution and development of your writing. You need your dreams crushed so you can pick them up again and make them stronger. Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t get you published (in most cases).

In my desire to help writers, I can be harsh with my advice, as if by doing so I’m saving them from the inevitable rejection pain that comes from their ignorance. I still haven’t figured out if this approach is misguided, but sometimes I can’t help it. A few weeks ago I was on a panel and a writer asked, “How can we balance picking out comparable titles yet staying true to our story because it’s too different, unique.”

I looked her straight in the eye and replied, “Trust me. Your story is not unique.”

Woah. I knew instantly it was a bit much, a knee-jerk response. It’s because I hear that all the time, “My story doesn’t have any comparable works.” or “What I’ve written is beyond compare.” etc. It makes me angry when writers seem to ignore the magnitude of what makes up the literary canon. I have to remind myself that in their inexperience, they really do think there aren’t any stories like theirs on the shelf or in the submission pile. (Fyi, there are dozens if not hundreds of other stories with similar concepts to yours in slushpiles around the world.) Usually I try to be gentler with my advice, so they hear me and don’t shut down into defensive mode. Because the more aware a writer is of how wide and sweeping the literary world is, the better they can navigate it.

Luckily, and to my embarrassment, the agent next to me chimed in to ease the tension. She used a word which resonated with me and the room full of writers. Fresh.

Stories, by their nature, are repetitive:

But yours can be a fresh take.

Take a story about a superhero who saves the world. How many times have you read that one? I bet you’re rolling your eyes right now. Me too. So how did a movie with that same old story make over 200 million dollars world-wide opening weekend just this year? Because it was fresh. Wonder Woman was a superhero movie starring a female superhero, directed by another female. Gasp. (Sad that in 2017 this is considered fresh, but we’ll save that rant for another time. Throw in the argument that a female screenplay writer should have been involved, and my head might explode.)

So how do you know you are writing something fresh? By reading, reading, reading. Then writing, writing, writing. Then submitting, submitting, submitting. And all over again. Writing is an apprenticeship. The more you read, write, and submit, the more you learn. You learn to recognize the commonality of stories and writing. You begin to see the building blocks which all books are built on and the mythologies that have supported stories for a millennia. You come to understand what is universal truth versus lazy stereotypes. And your vision shows in your writing. You are able to take a story and make it your own, put a new spin on a tired tale.

So perhaps your story is not unique. But it can be fresh.

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.