How to Stay Out of the Rejection Pile

By Victor DiGenti

I’ve heard it said the odds of finding an agent are about the same as winning the lottery. Admittedly, finding an agent right out of the box is a long shot, but sometimes lightning does strike. Julie Powell turned her frustrations into the Julie/Julia Project, a blog detailing her attempts to cook every one of Julia Child’s recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year – 356 days, 536 recipes. We all know the results of that quirky decision; an agent, a book deal, and a major motion picture.

Other frustrated writers are sure they wouldn’t be noticed if they set themselves on fire in the agent’s office. I wouldn’t recommend such a desperate act, but instead look at some of the more common reasons why writers are rejected. Noah Lukeman wrote an excellent book called The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. As a longtime agent, editor and author, Lukeman has seen his share of bad writing, and says an agent can tell if the author has game within the first five pages.

Many of the causes for rejection boil down to poor writing, but he also points to presentation, i.e. substandard formats, wrong font size and spacing problems, such as line breaks between paragraphs. All of this marks the writer as an amateur, and as a person who didn’t take the time to read the submission requirements.

Agents receive letters with their names misspelled, or addressed Dear Sir, or worse, addressed to an agent who no longer works at the firm. Most likely the packet will move rapidly from the agent’s hands to the rejection pile. Also, a typo or grammatical error in a query letter doesn’t give an agent or editor confidence in the author’s ability or professionalism, and usually leads to rejection.

I’ve had the opportunity to review a number of manuscripts over the past few years, and some problems are easy to spot and correct, like using too many adverbs. Instead of tagging the dialogue with, “he said angrily,” it’s always better to let your character’s actions demonstrate their emotions.

Joe slammed his fist on the table. “Don’t you dare touch that remote.”

New writers tend to tire of the traditional dialogue tags of he said, she said, and insert “more descriptive tags” like he growled, she demurred. Usually not a good idea. Most readers hardly notice the tags, and they’re not always necessary after establishing who’s speaking.

Other common mistakes include failing to hook the reader early in the story, in the first paragraph, if possible. They start with a flashback or offer up too much exposition and backstory. Find the action in a scene, a place where change is imminent, and pull the reader into the story with a strong hook. For instance, Earl Emerson’s 1988 mystery, Fat Tuesday, began with this compelling opener:

“I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper bag only complicated matters.”

On the flip side, how often have you read a strong opening page only to have the rest of the chapter fall flat, like someone let the air out of the tires? The writing should be consistently intriguing to sustain the reader’s interest throughout, not just on the first page or at the end of a chapter.

Another thing that appears too frequently in the work of newer writers is the use of dependent clauses at the beginning of sentences. This weakens the strength of the prose and leads to convoluted sentences like this one:

“Rushing into the room, Joe turned on the light, his foot sliding on the damp floor, dropping him to his knees.”

Joe may be a very talented individual, but tell me how he rushed into the room, turned on the light, slid on the floor and fell to his knees at the same time. Can’t happen. Yet I see this stylistic construction much too often, and probably have been guilty of writing a few such sentences myself.

Another overused construction, particularly in action scenes, is the As construction.
“As Joe struggled to keep his head above water, he felt something grab his left leg, kicked out at the unseen phantom, but felt himself being pulled deeper into the frigid water.”

Once again, this convoluted construction implies multiple actions happening simultaneously: he struggled to keep his head above water; he felt something grab his leg; he kicked; and he was pulled deeper underwater. Not only is it physically impossible, but it adds a layer of denseness between the implied action and the reader, leading to more passive prose. Simpler is always better.

“Joe struggled to keep his head above water. Something grabbed his leg. Panicked, he kicked out at the unseen phantom. The grip tightened around his ankle, pulling him down, down, down, into the frigid water.”

There are many other, more complicated, problems involving plot and structure, characterization, and sense of place, or lack of it. These take more time and effort to correct, and may require major revisions, and possibly the help of a professional editor. But look for these other common errors and you’re likely to be asked to submit more chapters.

One of the best tips to find the problems is also one of the easiest. After finishing the draft, let it sit for a few weeks. Then read it aloud. That clunky dialogue and awkward construction should jump out at you. Once you correct them in your rewrites, maybe you’ll get the attention of an editor without having to set yourself on fire.

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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