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:
- 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
- It’s a poorly constructed sentence
- Your character is waking up
- This is done all the time. It shows your inexperience.
- Rhetorical question
- You have to get the reader to care first before asking them a question. Indicates you may not understand narrative characterization yet.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A vague “deep” philosophical statement is made
- Same issue as the rhetorical question.
- 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.”
- 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.