What Was I Missing?
Ever wonder why, after only submitting the first few pages of your manuscript to an agent, editor, or a Twitter writing contest, your submission was swiftly rejected? Why, after spending countless hours of editing and perfecting those pages in your life’s blood and drowning your doubts in wine, did it get a quick “thanks but no thanks”? What made them decide so quickly? What do they see, and—more importantly—what did you miss in your rounds of editing?
These are all good questions—and questions I asked myself countless of times after submitting early drafts of my manuscript. What was I missing? And, after hearing feedback from writers who submitted to Pitch to Publication, a Twitter pitch contest for novel writers, this was the question that they were concerned about as well.
No Connection or Editing Red Flags?
The most obvious answer, and one that writers hate to hear, could simply be the agent or editor didn’t connect with a story. And, sometimes, this has nothing to do with the quality of your work. Other times, your submission may hit a few of those editing red flags that denote the manuscript as an early draft or done by a writer just beginning their career (and still needs time to hone their craft).
So, how to tell the difference between an “I didn’t connect with this” and “back to the drawing board” rejection? Consider these seven red flags in editing—and whether your manuscript might be harboring them away deep in your pages.
1. Starting Your Story in a Non-Pivotal Moment
As one of the editors for Pitch to Publication, I had to go through almost 100 submissions and pick only one to move onto the editing and agent round. All of the writers had to submit a query letter and the first five pages of their manuscript. During that time, a pattern became apparent. There were some key issues that a lot of writers seemed to hit, and where their story started was one of them.
Readers today can be pretty hard to entertain. With the slew of cinematic, attention-grabbing forms of entertainment out there (movies and television being only two of these), writers have to work extra hard to grab the attention of the modern reader (many of whom would rather binge-watch Netflix than read a book). Readers need a reason to root for the character from page one, and they also need to be immediately sucked into the story at the same time.
All that said, the first pages of your manuscript need to do a few things:
- Introduce us to your protagonist (or another character central to the plot)
- Suck us into your narrative style of storytelling (frequently, this is done well through opening with a scene that is pivotal to your character’s story)
- Give a sense of place (help us get to know your setting and start building your world)
- Give us a reason to cheer your character on (even if they’re unlikable)
All of this can be done in so many different creative ways. As an example, some of my favorite story openings are in medias res or amidst a scene that is pivotal to the character (which often involves introducing the stakes of the story).
2. Telling vs. Showing
Now, some of you may have heard this so many times that you’re already rolling your eyes at the mere mention of “showing vs. telling,” while others of you may be (as yet) unfamiliar with the phrase.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, “telling” is when a writer outright tells how a character is feeling or reacting, while “showing” reveals how the character is feeling or reacting indirectly.
Here’s an example:
- Telling: Mary Jane watched the battle from her vantage point with nervous anticipation.
- Showing: Mary Jane eyed the soldiers in the valley below, a mass of spears and swords, unable to breathe, let alone move.
As I read authors’ opening pages in Pitch to Publication, I would say about 80 percent struggled with this—telling me outright how a character felt, rather than revealing it through their body language or other imagery. This makes the reader feel distant from the character, rather than seeing the world through their eyes.
Perhaps another day I will dive into some of the ways to show (and not tell) in your writing. But, for now, try to be aware of any tendency you have to do this. And feel free to check out this post in Writer’s Digest in the meantime.
3. Too Much Backstory
Ah, the dreaded info dump. This is when, at the beginning of your story, large sections of text—maybe even whole pages—are dedicated to giving background information about what is going on or background information to the world itself.
This, my friends, is the easiest way to get readers’ eyes to glaze over your work.
So, we agreed that readers are a little finicky to entertain these days, right? Well, they are also easily distracted and don’t like to have to take in tons of background information at once—especially if they don’t even know (or care about) your characters yet.
Instead, weave the backstory into the action. Keep it to a minimum in those first few pages—subtly adding in bits and pieces of essential information into the action or as the character is doing something. Then, in your second, third, etc., chapters, you can start adding in a bit more.
In short: you need us to care about your character and world before you give us too much backstory.
(I’m looking at you, fellow fantasy writers.)
4. The Floating Heads
I heard this term on Twitter somewhere, and it has since stuck with me. Essentially, the “floating heads” is when there is a ton of dialogue and little to no dialogue tags (“Jim said”) or description of the setting. The result is a pretty lost reader—not knowing who is talking or where these talking people are.
You don’t want to bog down your reader with dialogue tags or setting descriptions too much right up front, but readers do need to have a sense of place and be able to imagine the characters in their mind.
5. Adverb-Heavy Writing
Another red flag I saw in my Pitch to Publication submissions were opening pages that tried a little too hard to give us a sense of place. (So, this would be the complete opposite spectrum of the “floating head syndrome.”)
These writers would include so many adverbs (and adjectives) in their writing that they lost the character’s voice in the jumble of descriptive words.
As one writer in Writer’s Digest said, “Never underestimate the weakness of adverbs and clichés.”
Here’s an example:
- Description-heavy writing: Mary Jane watched the tumultuous battle below, sharp swords and large battle spears flashing in the sunlight, and felt her tremulous heart flutter repeatedly in her chest.
- One alternative: Mary Jane watched the battle below—swords and spears flashing in the sunlight—her heart rattling in sync with the war drums in the distance.
It’s good to give us a sense of place through rich description, but be careful you don’t go too far. Sometimes, simple is best.
6. Scenes (or a Story) that Lack Stakes
Then there are the writers who have mastered the art of storytelling:
- The character has a strong (and likable) voice
- The setting is rich with description, but not too much to detract from the scene
- Pages open to a neato scene thick with tension and exciting to be a part of
We fly through these pages, excited to learn more, only to find out that there wasn’t a strategic purpose to the scene at all. It was a battle for a battle’s sake and had nothing to do with the overarching plot. In fact, the character’s motives and the ultimate stakes of the story are unclear, leaving the reader wondering where exactly this is all going.
This is where those handy dandy outlines come in. With the length of books tending to be shorter and shorter these days, you want to make every word, every scene count toward your ultimate goal and end.
7. A Protagonist with a Weak Voice
There is no single way to ensure a character has a strong voice in writing. It’s an amalgamation of a variety of things that result in a character we can’t help but to root for.
Consider the following when trying to bring out your character’s unique voice:
- First and foremost—do you know him/her well enough to know his/her voice?
- What is his/her greatest desire?
- What is his/her biggest weakness?
- What is he/she most afraid of?
- How does he/she see the world? Is it through vocation, through his/her past (whether it’s a happy one or one of troubles and hardship), through his/her ultimate goals, etc.? (For example, a farmer wouldn’t be making metaphors/comparing things he encounters to warfare—he/she doesn’t know warfare and would, therefore, compare their life and circumstances to what they know.)
- Is he/she an unreliable narrator/character?
- How much does his/her age impact how he/she views the world?
- How does his/her past impact what he/she sees in the present?
The more you ask yourselves questions about the character and how they view the world, the better you’ll know them and the easier it will be for readers to get to know them as well.
So next time you get a pass from an editor, take a good look at your manuscript. What you need to do to turn that into an acceptance may be right in front of you.
Meg LaTorre is a writer of adult science fiction and fantasy, YouTuber, developmental book editor, writing coach, creator of the free query critique platform, Query Hack, and former literary agent with a background in magazine publishing, medical/technical writing, and journalism. On Meg’s YouTube channel, iWriterly, she geeks out on all things books—from the concept to the bookshelves (and everything in between). Meg also launched Query Hack, a query critique platform where writers can submit their manuscript queries or Twitter pitches for free feedback. She has written for publications such as Writer’s Digest and Savvy Authors on topics related to writing and publishing, participated as an editor in Twitter contests, including #RevPit (Revise and Resubmit) and Pitch to Publication, is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers, and can be found teaching online classes throughout the year. To learn more about Meg, follow her on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, sign up for her monthly newsletter, and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.