Silk’s Post #31 — Are you ready to face your greatest fear? The monster under the bed? The thing that makes you break out in a cold sweat?
Okay. Let’s talk about rejection. You’ll feel better, I promise.
When the 5 writers convene our retreat to do our whole-book critiques (which I’ve taken to calling “5 writers critter week”), we will be commenting on all aspects of each other’s books. Characters. Setting. Plot and structure. Style. Ending.
But one of the most important things we’ll be talking about – from the perspective of as-yet unpublished writers who need to (literally) break into the business – is the beginning of each book. Those first few pages that an agent or editor will evaluate to determine whether to immediately discard the manuscript … or read on.
To give the most useful feedback possible on the magic first five pages, we will have to put ourselves in the shoes of an agent or editor. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We 5 writers care about each other, and about each other’s books. The agent or editor does not.
Imagine slogging through dozens, hundreds, thousands of manuscripts. One after another after another. Looking for that rarest of prizes: the potential bestseller written by somebody that no one’s ever heard of. This is what agents and editors do every day. It must be like sifting through a bale of hay … or a whole barn full of hay … searching for a diamond ring. One thing you’d quickly learn is that you can vastly increase your chances of finding that diamond if you can sift through more hay faster.
It’s that mindset we writers have to understand. Fortunately, there are a number of good references to help us do that – agents’ websites that give great query tips, hints from successful authors, and books by agents that are rich with advice. One of the most useful of these is The First Five Pages by New York literary agent Noah Lukeman. Here’s what he says about the gatekeepers’ mindset:
“Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript – and believe me, they’ll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.”
It’s that simple, and that brutal. Yikes.
To someone who’s struggled through the process of writing – and rewriting, and re-rewriting – a 400-page novel, it may seem unfair that it will be judged worthy or unworthy on the basis of just the first one percent of those pages. It makes the process seem like a lottery. Yet Lukeman insists that it is “not a wild assumption” to conclude that:
“… if you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page 1, you will likely find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come.”
Isn’t this like getting flunked on a technicality? What about our incredibly engaging plot? Our vivid, complex characters? Our haunting, unforgettable setting? Surely these things can’t be assessed on the basis of the first five pages. No. They can’t. That’s exactly the point. These strengths we think our book possesses will never be discovered if we can’t convince the agent or editor to turn to page 6.
But before you give up and switch from writing to something easier, like brain surgery or rocket science, consider that these gatekeepers’ “snap” judgements may not be as arbitrary and petty as they sound. Lukeman says:
“… I’ve read thousands of manuscripts, all, unbelievably, with the exact same types of mistakes. From Texas to Oklahoma to California to England to Japan, writers are doing the exact same things wrong.”
So the key, according to him, is to avoid early and obvious errors that give the agent or editor an excuse to stop reading before they get to the good part.
But what exactly are these errors? After studying the advice of Lukeman and others, I have been inspired to follow in the tradition of literary advice-givers by preparing a list of rules. I offer the following helpful prescription for failure, which I urge you not to follow.
Silk’s “Sweet 16” Rules for Almost Guaranteed Rejection
- When submitting a query, don’t follow presentation and submission guidelines exactly. Do you really want your manuscript to seem like every other manuscript? Make it stand out and show your individuality and creativity by breaking a few rules.
- In your presentation, be sure to impress the agent or editor with your mastery of big words and clever use of foreign phrases. This makes you seem smart and worldly. Extra points if you can force the agent to consult a dictionary.
- Pay no mind to the old wives’ tales about clichés. Clichés are the spice of life. Make sure to work some into the first five pages.
- Don’t forget to make liberal use of adverbs and adjectives. These clearly and engagingly make your writing all the richer and more enticingly, deliciously entertaining. Remember, every plain verb or noun is just crying out for colourful, descriptive decoration.
- Be sure to include sufficient backstory early in the book. You might as well get the painfully boring part over with as quickly as possible, like pulling off a Band-Aid. A few paragraphs of straight narrative is one efficient way to get the reader up to speed. Or stick it in a Prologue.
- Nothing makes a first impression more dramatically than an opening scene with lots of blood and gore, blue language and explicit sex. If you can work all these into the first five pages, you’ve hit the Trifecta! Why save the exciting parts for later?
- If you want the reader to really pay attention to a sentence, be sure to end it with an exclamation point! Or two!! How are they supposed to know you’re telling them something important?!
- Want to introduce doubt, mystery and intrigue into your story right from the beginning? Writers often wonder about this? Here’s a simple and effective way to do it: insert lots of question marks. This really makes readers think.
- Don’t waste your time, fussing with punctuation nor spelling; and other archaic grammer rules; as their probably all just going to get changed by some editor after you get you’re book contract, anyway so let the editor’s do there jobs!
- An apt metaphor is a sparkling diamond lying supine in the belly button of your novel. A novel without enough metaphors and similes is like a cold, empty Walmart warehouse where the golden links of the supply chain have tragically broken and the shelves are bereft of toys and rubber flip flops.
- It’s your book and you should make the reader aware of your presence as a writer right from the get go. This is your place to show off your talent, so indulge yourself and don’t let the story get in the way of your creativity with words. You want your special “voice” to be noticed, so don’t be shy about drawing attention to yourself.
- Don’t take the risk of an important concept or plot point getting lost. Make sure the reader “gets” it by saying it several times in slightly different words.
- Creative use of dialogue is one of the easiest ways to impress an agent or editor. Several pages of uninterrupted, rapid-fire dialogue, using short sentences and fragments, for instance, is sure to be noticed, especially in the first five pages.
- When using attributors in dialogue, choose a variety of verbs and evocative adverbs – such as “she tearfully exclaimed” or “he angrily ejaculated” – in preference to the dull volley of “he said-she said.”
- Dialogue is an entertaining way to deliver large chunks of backstory, or tell other facts that are hard to “show.” By disguising the information as “natural” conversation, you can cleverly use your characters to speak for you by proxy.
- Use of dialect and slang in dialogue adds spice and authenticity. “Thass cane, innit? A and B the C of D!” is far more colourful, for example, than “That’s excessive, don’t you think? Above and beyond the call of duty!” This kind of dialogue keeps readers and agents right where you want them: guessing.
I wish you the best of luck in boosting your approval ratings by not doing any of this!