Articles Tagged with writing tip

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.

Titling Your Manuscript For Submission: An Agent Weighs In

Artwork by Marcus Connor at Brainless Tales

A quick Google search will bring up a host of useful articles with tips on how to title your novel. Rather than regurgitate the information already easily available, this post will dig into my own personal (and I like to think professional) point of view and focus on those books that are in the manuscript phase, i.e. soon to be out on submission or wallowing in the slushpile.

As I evolve and grow into my occupation, I am surprised by how much I am continually learning and changing. Writing rules that I believed were absolutes in my first year are now not as important to me as writers who have clear longterm career goals. Genres/writing styles that I once thought to be marketable fall behind as marketing trends point me in a different direction. And the amount of time I spend on each submission, has dramatically fallen. Before you get indignant, hear me out. I know, more than ever before, what type of client I’m looking for and what kinds of projects I want. Eighty-five percent of the time I can tell from the query alone that we are not a good match. The other fifteen? Those will eventually get a closer look. They will queue in my inbox (hopefully not too long), waiting for the day I can muster up a few hours to examine them. When that day comes, first I have to recall why the submission is sitting there. Perhaps the author’s website or bio impressed me. Maybe their opening pages caught my interest or their particular writing style intrigued me. But if I have difficulty pinning down why I kept it, odds are I will pass. If it didn’t stick with me after percolating awhile, then I move on to those that did.

One of the biggest aspects of a submission that will help it stick in my memory is the title. If I remember the title, most likely I’ll remember the query, the writing, and the reason I’ve kept it around. And I’m going to boldly make the conjecture that most agents and editors would agree with me.

Titles that tend not to stick are those that are hard to pronounce or have made-up words (here’s looking at you SFF writers!). Long titles will be a problem as well, unless it’s a catchy phrase. In general if people give you a “huh” expression when you tell them the name of your book, time to rethink it.

The takeaway from this? Your title shouldn’t be a half-fast decision nor a personal choice (most titles will change a few times through the publishing process anyway, so you don’t want to get attached), rather it should be considered another tool to market your book, a piece of the submission whole package. Research the craft of titling your book as carefully as you are researching the agents you choose to query (operating under the assumption that if you are reading this, you are researching literary agents) and hopefully you will come up with a title will make your submission stand out in the slush.

And, given my baby girl has let me sleep that night, I’ll remember your submission.