Thursday, September 30, 2010

Top 25 Reasons Your Submissions are Rejected

Anne Mini of Author! Author! has curated a list of reasons for rejection, from panel discussion at the Surrey, B.C. Writers Conference. Each year agents and publishers conduct an exercise, where they read aloud the first pages of writers' submissions to see how far they would read before it would be rejected. Here is Anne's list:

Image by Sean MacEntee, via Flickr
1. An opening image that did not work.
2. Opened with rhetorical question(s).
3. The first line is about setting, not about story.
4. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene.
5. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene.
6. Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.
7. Not enough happens on page 1
8. The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.
9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”
10. The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”
11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”
12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.
13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.
14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. (The most I counted in a single submission was 5.) Specifically singled out: a character’s long red or blonde hair.
15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. Specifically singled out: a character who shakes her head to clear an image, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.”
16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
18. The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest…
19. An unnamed character (usually “she”) is wandering around the opening scene.
20. Non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time (and remember, on the first page, a paragraph is a long time).
21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a physical description.
22. The first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action.
23. Too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents seemed to have a problem with this.)

This is Why I Would Read Beyond Page 1:
1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
3. The author made the point, then moved on.
4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
5. The voice is strong and easy to relate to.
6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
7. “Good opening line.”
8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

See Author! Author! for further explanations and interpretation.


  1. Very helpful tips, Heidi. But I must say that sometimes I shake my head to clear the cobwebs. Just did it this morning. LOL

  2. Wow! Awesome list, Heidi! I'm going to share this with all my author clients! It's basically stuff I've been telling them, but it's great to hear it from someone else, and so clearly laid out. Great post!

  3. Wow! Great stuff, especially considering that the opening of any book is often the most difficult to write. I do disagree with the person who rejected a manuscript based on its opening with dialogue. This approach can be powerful if it leads smoothly into the story because you get an immediate sense of character (a whole lot more than "spiky purple hair and large green eyes").

    An excellent point that weaves through this post is marketability. If we can't get our manuscripts past an agent or publisher, they will never reach our readers in book form (if we're going the traditional pub route). Since marketing should play into our plan unless we're writing solely for our own pleasure or expression, we need to take to heart the turn-offs that send our manuscripts from the slush pile to file 13 (aka wastebasket). We also need to remember—if we're self-publishing—that readers may reject our books for these same reasons. We mustn't dismiss them as irrelevant just because we're taking an alternate path to publication.

    Thank you for sharing, Heidi.

  4. Great post. Funny, too - esp. the line about the mirror.

  5. Great Post, Heidi, though I take issue with #25 :P

  6. Great post. I once had an editor tell me not to begin with dialogue.

  7. Interest and informative post. You always have something important to tell us here!


  8. So pretty much it's that opening line, paragraph, page. The so called hook that pulls an editor, agent, reader in that makes them want to read on, that's so important.

  9. Somewhere down the line while enrolled at Long Ridge Writers Group and working my way through the course manual and textbooks, I came across the advice to begin with dialogue. So, sometimes I do.

    Too bad writers can't read an editor's mind in advance and know which route to take. Could save us all a lot of wasted time.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Wanda Morrow Clevenger
    Published author of twenty-three short pieces of fiction, non, and poetry to date.

  10. Thank you for the specific examples. There are some invaluable lessons in here, and I think I'll keep this post open as I begin revisions today!

  11. Heidi, how did I miss this yesterday? I'm so glad I caught up with it--this is spectacular. An absolute must-read.

  12. This is a great list of pitfalls to avoid. I'm guilty of the reflection/description sin in some of my fiction. I'll keep this list handy for future reference. Thanks!

  13. Thank you Heidi. I have shared your blog with my adolescent writing students. It's great advice. Thanks for sharing. I will be recommending this information to my edit clients.

    Gail Lennon

  14. Great list. Very imformative. Will keep all of these in mind.

  15. Hello, Heidi: I'm flattered that you thought the list I posted on my blog was useful enough to reproduce here in its entirety, but the implication of your lead-in was that this was a list generated and handed out at the Surrey contest. It was not. I sat and listened to a couple of hours' worth of commentary on first pages and boiled it down to a list for the benefit of my blog's readers.

    Surrey is an excellent conference, but what you have reproduced here is actually my writing. I appreciate the link, naturally, but standard blogging etiquette does dictate including the author's name when quoting to this extent. Thanks for sharing it with your readers, though!

  16. This is fantastic!!! Thanks for the list of the good and the bad. =D

  17. Thanks for the post Heidi (and Anne Mini). I was unable to attend the Writer's Conference in Surrey, so I appreciate this all the more.

  18. Of course, I'm sure we can find quite successful books that break each and every one of these rules.

    I'm not sure what that says about agents.

    The 'cobweb objection' is quite ridiculous.

  19. Useful, but a tad subjective. I suppose overcoming an agent's idiosyncratic dislikes is a real enough obstacle. Most of the points are simply common sense but codifying them has power. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Things that drive a writer crazy: See above list.

  21. Hi - thanks for this. Always a good thing to know what goes on in an agent's mind.
    I will read learn and inwardly digest and do my best to follow the advice.

  22. I like your list better than theirs. I think the 25 tips above, prior to yours, are a little too much pretension. The Shining atsrted off with setting and an interview rather than the story(ie - it set the stage). The Guns of the South gave a lot of backstory before getting into any action. By the rules listed, I don't even think Lord of the Rings could get by them today.

    The more I see what agents and publishers dismiss a book for, the less I think they understand what motivates a reader to get into a story.

  23. Very sound advice, but I would like to add that there is no accounting for taste, a friend of mine reads stories that I have found boring: An action scene with tiny info dumps in between blows where the protagonist admits he is going to die three quarters of the way through. The author (USA)was a judge in a short story contest who rejected one of my submissions. Oh, I agreed with him, there was "too much happenning" so I've cut it short and will be submitting it (somewhere else) in October.
    Openings! I write from the soul, I don't have a method, dialogue, action, it depends on the story, as does the first or third person tense and always past perfect.

    Thanks for the info.


  24. Interesting, but maybe this explains why so much published work is predictable, derivative, banal or formulaic.
    And if editors/agents are so smart, where are all the masterpieces they have wrought through these hurdles?
    Would many writers be better writers if they just held true to their inner writing voice rather than start from the position where they second guess what an agent/editor will like?
    I suppose it depends on the writer's motivation. Is getting that publishing deal (however mediocre) more important than producing a piece of work that is true to yourself?

  25. I agree with what Gerry Cappa says.
    I went on a short writing course and was told to write a poem. I did, the lecturer then pulled it to pieces and changed this and this and this...end product - it was his poem in his style, not mine. He did the same to others in the room until all pieces followed the same form, it wasn't very inspirational and nothing stood out. During coffee break we all decided we preferred our own versions of our work and felt like we'd wasted our time. To be individual is the key....not to follow some pre-decided formula.... readers find that predictable.

  26. Maybe this is just me, but I rarely just say anything. I interject, counter, challenge, exclaim and declare all the live long day though. Much more fun that way :)

  27. Good list. I enjoyed reading it.
    I do want to point out though (and I may be the only person in history to do this) that I actually do shake my head sometimes to get rid of a bad mental image. It's more a distraction so that I can think of something else. It's almost more of a twitch than a full on shake, but...I do it.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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