Monday, January 10, 2011

Why your MS is getting Rejected

Why do agents request only a few pages to look at rather than the whole manuscript right off the bat if your query is amazing?  Because we can tell what your writing style is like within the first few pages.

What if you want us to look at pages further in the book because they are better and the first few pages aren't representative of your work?  Then revise your first section.

I've seen plenty of manuscripts that pick up after fifty pages, but that's fifty pages of work we have to put in (for free, and we have to weigh if the gamble is worth it).  There is plenty of advice out there on first sentences, first pages, and first chapters.  If you read my Wednesday Reads, you'll see how much weight I give to a first line--the ones I really love is when I don't want to stop at the first line, but give you several, or whole pages.

YA Highway recently did a blog post on the importance of using beta readers, which yes, I'll agree is very important.  But even if you have a professional copy editor edit your work line for line and every sentence is grammatically correct, it doesn't necessarily make for a book deal.  Ever read a textbook front to back without falling asleep?  Grammatically correct?  You bet.  Boring as heck?  You bet.  Why?  Story.  Plot.  Not delving into the anatomy of a whale for fifty pages... Am I talking about Moby Dick now too?  You bet.  Melville's sentences are grammatically correct as well, but I would never suggest a writer in today's market write a half page long sentence using fifteen semi colons (please don't).

For me, one of the quickest ways to test a writer's skills is to read a section with dialogue.  It needs to flow well, read like a real conversation, include enough description to lend action, have voice for each character, have it's own dialogue arch, emotion, and have a point.  You can't have a conversation for the sake of having a conversation. I also look to see where the first conversation comes in.  If it's ten pages in, I start to worry about back story dump.  Sometimes there will be long breaks without conversation in which the writer tries to move the story forward by summarizing--sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.

So, your friends and computer spell check are probably great resources to go to for grammar and spelling, but beware of people saying "It's good."  Ask for constructive criticism.  Beg for it.  Even published books get scrutinized--or we wouldn't have book bloggers--and the reviews never stop at "it's good."  A good critique group is invaluable.  Having a professional look at it is even better (editors, work shops, industry friends), because they will tell you specifically what works and what doesn't and (hopefully) never leave off at "it's good."

Summing up, use your beta readers, but don't put all your stock in them.  Use critique groups, workshops, and professional editors (who don't stop at grammar but look at content and pacing).  If your ms is getting rejected after a few pages, you're sure your query is good (you'll know by how many agents request to see samples off your query), and your plot is unique, look at the writing.  It might not be up to par yet.  You might have errors in your ms that have nothing to do with grammar that still scream "Newbie! Newbie! Newbie!"

Happy revising!

14 comments:

A Tale of Many Reviews said...

I'm a book review blogger and I do get people asking my opinion of their work before they submit to agents. You make great points here and spell it out in black and white. Thanks for sharing your insights.

Donna Hosie said...

Reading aloud is the only way to go. Those around you may think writing has finally sent you insane, but it is an excellent way to spot those sections that don't flow.

Heather said...

Excellent points! Every chapter, every page has to serve a purpose in the story. It's good to be reminded of that. Thank you! We must instill the need for the reader to keep reading. Maybe I'll post that next to my writing space... :)

Shallee said...

Thanks for this post! My critique group has definitely been invaluable for making my manuscript better. Nothing's more helpful than a comment of, "this doesn't work and here's why."

Another thing I've found that's helpful is to take a scene out of my manuscript, plop it in a separate document, and look at it on its own. It's surprising how taking a scene out of context makes me look at it differently. I've been able to smooth out sections I didn't even know were rough.

Leslie Rose said...

Love the specifics you shared! Thank you for the pointers. I agree, beta-readers often feel like the stereotypical "yes men."

Jen Albin said...

I know that if I find myself skimming in the first chapter, I don't buy the book! There's only one book I forced myself to keep reading even though its just angsty teen girl for 40 pages and the title rhymes with Highlight.

www.jenniferalbin.com

Plato Kasserman said...

My first complete novel (a YA urban fantasy) is being reviewed right now by my beta readers. I've instructed them to focus mainly on the story and let me know what confuses or disinterests them. I hope they'll be brutal and not try to spare my feelings. I can catch most of the grammatical errors myself when I reread it again and again. I wish I had a reading group in this town. What do you think about online critique groups? Are they as good?

Tanya Reimer said...

I can't find a decent beta reader, everyone just hands the book back and asks for another one. Best advice I ever got was from a writer who was mad at me because I gave him my critique first, and I was prehaps, too honest and had no idea what I was talking about. Anyway, he changed the way I looked at my first page. Until that point everyone was oh so kind, but he was rudely kind enough to point out things I would have seen instantly in someone else's work. LOL. Point is, ask your enemies to read your first page, not your friends, and make sure they are avid readers- writers, even better.

Shayda Bakhshi said...

Those first ten to twenty pages are the toughest for me in a rough draft. I tend to take my time getting started and finding the voice of the piece. But once I'm done, I know I need to hack at stuff. Seriously.

I think one of the most important things for new writers is, like you said, if you feel like an agent will love your work "once they get past ___", then the beginning probably needs work.

Also, I'd never thought of dialogue isolation as a way to gauge writing skill--that is really cool, and something I will definitely keep in mind as I do critiques (and my OWN revisions).

Roberta Walker said...

Query Tracker Forum's "First Five" is a good resource to get your first five pages critiqued. And a good place to read and return crits on other first five's. The crit of my first five lead me on a major rewrite (finished today!)which I *think* has finally made my novel (mostly) work!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I found this very helpful for analyzing my first pages. You told us which strong elements to look for and what not to do! I'm a new follower of your blog. Thanks for taking the time to help writers!

Barbara Kloss said...

Thanks for all of that. And I really, REALLY loved that 'Editing' Poster! So true. Me and that delete key are still coming to terms.

bibliophile brouhaha said...

Great post with lots of insight. I'm not a story writer, but I certainly appreciate the information on good writing skills. Certainly, as a book blogger, I think the way we communicate to our followers about books is extremely important, so writing advice is always welcome!

-Linds

HowLynnTime said...

My Mother, school teacher for 27 years, loves to read...ask her to read my MS and dig out her old red pen, to x any error, plot hole, confusing wording etc. I got it back with three words. "Don't like it!" and not another mark on it.
Hey, at least I will never make the mistake of putting "My Mommy says its the best book she has ever read!" in a query.
After I finished laughing, I asked her if it was really that bad? She said that it was a nice story until it got creepy. Mom, you read King and Koontz. (but she does not Know them.) LOL!