Agents are inundated with submissions. Technology has made it easy for people to write and then submit what they’ve written to agents (or directly to publishing houses), hopeful their work will be recognized as a gem.
But there’s an enormous mismatch between the number of people who think they have a publishable book and the number of books that are considered publishable by industry professionals. Authors needs to be realistic. For one thing, they need to know that agents reject about 97% of the manuscripts submitted to them.
The weeding-out process is—like human life in olden times—nasty, brutish, and short. Many manuscripts are rejected at the first sign of amateurism, often right on the first page. This may seem unfair. Shouldn’t the book be judged according to whether or not it tells a good story? No, today’s publishing standards demand that a novel have both a great story and be expertly written. Agents and editors don’t have much time or patience for working with authors on writing basics. They will pass on the book if they feel it is not up to professional standards.
Below is my list of the top 7 writing mistakes I typically see in the first chapter (often on the first page) of a manuscript that tell me an author is unpolished.
Use of clichés. When I see a phrase like “It was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk” on page 1, I am unlikely to ever make it to page 2.
Point-of-view confusion. If Jack is “feeling” excited and “thinking” about seeing Jane, and then in the very next sentence is being described through Jane’s eyes, I know the writer is not solidly anchored in a point-of-view and probably doesn’t understand its importance.
Tense inconsistency. If the narration switches back and forth from past to present, I know the author is not in control of the story. Similarly, if the writer doesn’t know when to use the past perfect, I’m wary.
An abundance of mundane details. When I see long sections of description that seem to have no purpose in terms of story or character, I conclude the writer doesn’t understand that details must have a purpose or at least be interesting.
Small talk. When an author includes dialogue that consists of “Hello, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” and that sort of meaningless interaction, I know there is a lack of understanding about the essence of dialogue.
Introduction of character with full name and complete physical description. Polished writers are able to find gradual, graceful ways to work in the necessary details. I won’t get past the first paragraph if I see that sort of information dump.
Use of verbs other than “speaking” verbs to connote speech. Speaking verbs include the words said, uttered, murmured, whispered, shouted, and the like. Other (non-speaking) verbs that amateur writers often use to connote speech are sighed, groused, complained, admonished, cautioned, etc. Polished writers generally stick with speaking verbs and avoid unnecessary attributions throughout dialogue as much as possible.
Before you send out your manuscript, check for these 7 deadly narrative sins. If you are committing any of them, re-edit your work. If you’re not sure whether or not you are committing any of them, consider paying a professional editor for a critique, even if it’s just on one chapter. You may save yourself a lot of time and heartache.
Carly Cantor is an acquisitions editor, literary agent, and published author who offers manuscript critiques, evaluations, and book editing services.