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.

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