It doesn’t sound fair.
It doesn’t seem right.
But here’s a dirty little secret of the writing life you need to hear:
Any veteran editor can tell within two minutes whether they’re going to reject your manuscript.
It takes longer to decide whether they’ll recommend it for purchase, of course, but—sad to say—it can, and often does, go into the reject pile just that fast.
“What?” you say. “Before I’ve had a chance to wow them with my stupendous villain? Before my mind-blowing twist? Before my plot really takes off?”
And I’m not exaggerating.
Because the competition is so stiff and editors have so many manuscripts to read, you have only nanoseconds to grab them by the throat and hang on.
Every writing mentor hammers at this ad infinitum: Your editor is your first reader.
Every word counts. You get one chance. You must capture them from the get-go.
Am I saying editors look for reasons to reject your work?
No, no, a thousand times no! They’re looking for the next Harry Potter!
Editors want you to succeed!
Then how can they know so quickly that your book won’t cut it?
In my lifetime in the business I’ve heard dozens of reasons, but let me give you my personal top five from my experience as both an editor and publisher:
This is what editors call anything that comes before a story or chapter finally, really, begins. It usually consists of a page or two of scene setting and background. Get on with the story. Get your main character introduced, establish and upset some status quo, then plunge him into terrible trouble that reveals the engine of your story. Is it a quest, a journey, a challenge, what?
There’ll be plenty of time to work in all those details that seemed so important while you were throat-clearing that would have cost you a sale. For now, your job is to start with a bang.
- Too many characters introduced too quickly
I’m usually wary of generalizations or hard and fast rules, but almost any time I see more than three characters within the first few pages, my eyes start to swim. If I feel like I need a program to keep track of the players, I quickly lose interest.
Your reader is trying to comprehend the story, and if you ask him to start cataloguing a cast of characters right away, you risk losing him. Keep things simple till the story has taken shape.
- Point of View violations
Maintain a single Point of View (POV) for every scene. Violate that cardinal rule and you expose yourself as an amateur right out of the gate. Beginners often defend themselves against this criticism by citing classics by famous authors or citing J.K. Rowling, the exception who proves the rule.
Times change. Readers’ tastes evolve. This is the rule for today, and it’s true of what sells.
- Clichés, and not just words and phrases
There are also clichéd situations, like starting your story with the main character waking to an alarm clock, a character describing herself while looking in a full-length mirror, future love interests literally bumping into each other upon first meeting, etc.
Avoid, too, beginning with an evocative, dramatic scene, and surprise, surprise, the main character wakes up to discover it’s all been a dream. There’s nothing wrong with dreams, but having them come as surprises has been used to death and takes all the air from the balloon of your story.
It’s also a cliché to have your main character feel his heart pound, race, thud, or hammer; and then he gasps, sucks wind, his breath comes short… If you describe the scene properly, your reader should experience all that and you shouldn’t have to say your character did. Put your character into a rough enough situation, and the reader will know what he’s feeling without having to be told—and hopefully he’ll share his distress.
- Simply bad writing:
This is what I call that special language we all tend to use when we forget to Just Say It.
Hollywood screenwriters coined this term for prose that exactly mirrors real life but fails to advance your plot. There’s nothing wrong with the words themselves, except that they could be synopsized to save the reader’s time and patience. A perfect example is replacing all the hi’s and hello’s and how are you’s that precede meaningful dialogue with something like: “After trading pleasantries, Jim asked Fred if he’d heard about what had happened to Tricia. ‘No, what?’”
- Passive voice
Avoid state-of-being verbs. Change sentences like “There was a man standing…” to “A man stood…”
- Needless words
The most famous rule in the bible of writing hints, The Elements of Style, is “Omit Needless Words,” which follows its own advice. This should be the hallmark of every writer.
Example: The administrative assistant ushered me through the open door into the CEO’s office, and I sat down in a chair across from his big, wood desk.
Edit: The administrative assistant ushered me through the open door into the CEO’s office, and I sat down in a chair across from his big, wood desk.
Obviously, there would be a door. And even more obviously, it would be open. If I sat, I would sit “down,” and naturally it would be in a chair. Because I’m seeing the CEO, a description of his desk would be notable only if it weren’t big or wood.
Result: The administrative assistant ushered me into the CEO’s office, and I sat across from his desk.
Re-examine these 5 common mistakes, and study more self-editing tips here, then share below your tips on how to turn rejections into sales.