Winning the Showdown on Page One

In an old New Yorker cartoon, an angry writer sits at his desk before a battered typewriter pounding out a note to a publisher. The caption goes like this: “I find your rejection slip mealy-mouthed, turgid, and totally lacking in style, and regret that I must reject your rejection slip.”

Rejection slips will never be models of style, and they never bring good news. Read on to learn one way to help avoid them. Our assistant Claire Cavanaugh, an outstanding editor, and Robin Perini–both are romance writers–did a workshop at the Romance Writers of America Conference. To prepare, they asked a group of agents, including Elizabeth Pomada and Laurie McLean at our agency, seven questions about fiction and nonfiction books.

In response to one question, agents replied that 90 percent of time, they can tell from page one if a manuscript was not salable. This was the follow-up question:

4. What are the most common reasons that you can tell a manuscript will NOT work on page one?

  • Poor writing, incomplete sentences, lots of adjectives each sentence.
  • No hook. Not enough dramatic tension. Too much like so many other plots.
  • Misspellings & poor grammar.
  • Lengthy narrative (usually “setting the scene” with too many details); dull opening with no change (change can be subtle but something must be happening); writing style that doesn’t engage; writer is telling and not showing the story
  • Bad writing, cliché opening, trite character names, poor grammar.
  • Bad prose, wrong word choices, bad grammar and punctuation. Boring, flat, no voice
  • You can’t tell on the first page unless the topic is impossible

The survey has a lot of helpful information. Do yourself a favor and check it out at Robin’s blog: http://robinperini.wordpress.com. Read the post called “Hooks and Opening – Inside Scoop,” click on the helpful handout which has sample openings, and on the last link for the “Inside Scoop Complete Survey Report.”

Agents and editors have a hair-trigger response to bad prose. If you’re telling a story, you can win the showdown on page one by showing up with a killer first page. Let your best words win. It beats having to reject rejections.

11 Important Elements in a Novel or Memoir

A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila.

–Mitch Ratliffe

Your computer ends the physical drudgery of writing. But it can’t prevent you from making mistakes or ensure that what you write is salable. You may have only seconds to seize the interest of agents and editors who are swamped with submissions. In descending order of importance, here are the eleven most important elements in a novel or memoir:

  • The idea: Will it excite editors because it’s new or a fresh take on an old idea?
  • The first page: Do the first sentence, paragraph, and page compel readers to keep going? (For more about this, please see my earlier post on The S Theory.)
  • The story: Do your conflicts, story twists, and subplots make readers want to know what  comes next?
  • The people: Will your readers connect with your characters and care what happens to them?
  • Page-turnability: Does the pace vary and does the tension or suspense keep your readers turning the pages?
  • The dialogue: Is it varied and distinctive enough and to portray the characters through  tone, emotion, and the way they speak?
  • The writing: Is it good enough for the kind of book you’re writing?
  • The setting/s: Does it reflect, enhance, or drive your story?
  • The structure:  Is how you constructed your story the most effective way to build tension until the climax?
  • The ending: Is it the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal?
  • Your future books: Do you have a synopsis or proposal for a follow-up book?

 Also Worth Noting

The synopsis: Does it tell the whole story in a way that will make agents and editors who read part of the manuscript eager to read the rest of it?

Rising Fast in Importance

  • Your promotion plan: Will it help get enough books to the cash register?
  • Your platform: Do you have continuing visibility, online and off?

You need knowledgeable readers to help you answer these questions. Ask them to use this list when you share your work. My partner Elizabeth Pomada, who handles the fiction and memoirs in our agency, and our assistant, Claire Cavanaugh, helped with this list, which doesn’t claim to be definitive. These elements may vary in importance.

Two suggestions to help you:

  • Make your models first resource: the books you love that inspire you to write yours.
  • As in all things, trust your instincts and common sense.