Saturday, August 12, 2017

Two reasons you're hearing no

I'm on a reading tear this month so I've got my eyeballs on a lot of requested manuscripts. This means I'm reading stuff that sounded intriguing at the query stage. Good query, good premise, good pages.

So, why do a lot of these novels not get past the requested full stage?

(1) One big reason is when nothing happens in the first 50 pages. When I say nothing happens, I really mean nothing CHANGES for the characters. Nothing is at stake. They haven't had to make a choice.

It's akin to a chess game. The chess players first set up the board. The pieces are carefully placed and then  the chess player makes a choice and MOVES a piece;commits to changing where one of the pieces is. The story and plot start when the first piece moves, not when the players sit down at the board.

If a lot of your first chapter is getting people into place, I'm yawning by chapter two.

And if your character doesn't have to change, move, decide, risk something in the first 50 pages, it's often a pass from me.

Or think of it this way. Remember the Frost poem that starts "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood?"
Facing those two roads is where the story starts.

How Our Man in the Woods got to the place, what he's carrying in his rucksack, what he ate for lunch, why he's carrying three cats and a lute...all beside the point. Interesting of course, and I'll be keen to see more about it later, but the story starts when Cats N Woodsman  has to decide which path to take.

This is often what we're thinking about when you hear "slow pacing" or "the story didn't start soon enough" or more baldly "no plot."

It's really easy to confuse a series of events with plot. They are NOT the same thing. Only where there is something at stake/a choice/a decision/a change is there a plot.


(2) Lack of story telling. A series of events isn't a story either. A story has context and world building.
Felix Buttonweezer arrived on Carkoon. There was a lot of kale. He'd come from The Reef. It's true, you can't suggest Sharques post twice a day and not get exiled. 

That's a series of events.

Felix Buttonweezer landed on Carkoon, jet pack in pieces at his feet, looked around at the kale fields and wondered if he'd ever see The Reef again. Or how he'd ever get back.

is the start of a story.

Do you see the difference?
(ok, it's terrible writing, but you're the novelist, not me!)

As you read books-not-yours, read with your writer eye. Watch how the novelist tells a story, how they get stakes on the page and WHEN.  Emulate!

And often the best way to learn is to read books that aren't your favorite, and figure out why you hate them.

I realized I don't much care for the drunken-sot-down-on-his-luck-ex-something cause I like protagonists who are heroic, who are our better selves.  This isn't some kind of blanket statement, but it goes a long way toward understanding why I love love love Jack Reacher and Sam Dryden. And why I love Peter Ash (The Drifter et al by Nick Petrie). While Peter is down on his luck, he's not a sad sack. He's a guy who makes things happen. (I'm sure there's someone out there who doesn't like Peter Ash but that person is a dunderhead and will be spoken of nevermore.)


Now back to my reading stack.
You do NOT want to guess how many pending fulls I have.
Or maybe you do.

48 comments:

Carolynnwith2Ns said...


Yesterday and today fiction/memoir class.

Years ago I sold some old gold jewelry to take a memoir class. The class, $600.00. The gold $603.00. (It was meant to be.)
First day, first words, “What’s at stake in your memoir?”
What?
Huh?
I sold every piece of dear-departed Aunt Ann’s broken jewelry for “what’s at stake.” What the hell does that mean?
I gave you every dime I have (for an idea). I can’t pay the electric bill, my ancient mini-van in on empty, the kids need sneakers, we’re out of bread, I can’t afford milk money and you ask, “What’s at stake?”
I’ll tell you what’s at stake: keeping the lights on, making it home without running out of gas, my kids bare feet, empty bellies and having to sign up for free lunch at school.
Get it?
Got it.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

Janet,
You're brilliant.

CynthiaMc said...

This is my new favorite post.

Also why I love Jack Reacher.

If I starr reading about snowfall in the woods there had better be a monster, a body, or an explosion in there somewhere.

Okay, by ten pages.

That's a lie. Paragraph two is about my limit.

Should I be an agent?

CynthiaMc said...

Start not starr. More coffee.

Em Davey said...

I'm listening to "Could You Be Loved" by Bob Marley which might be a decent song for looking at fulls and wondering whether they deserve a call or not. When I read books/watch Netflix I'm always on the lookout for when the inciting incident happens. Sometimes it happens too late, especially if they rely on rooly rooly good-looking heroes like Colin Farrell (yeah, that was the last movie I saw). I'm ruthless and will close the book/switch off the tv. I'm bewildered by people who say "this book takes a while to get good but it's worth it". Nah. If a book took my twenty bucks it needs to be good in the first five pages, no more.

S.P. Bowers said...

26 pending fulls?

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Hm....11 pending fulls?

Do I have changes in the first 50 pages of my novel? Yes.
Does my character have to change, move, decide, risk? And have I made this clear to the reader? Time to get it to my crit readers/beta partners. Again. Soon.

Or in the language of other author bloggers: is there a launch, an inciting incident, and a doorway into a new world?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

And my beta readers may need to wait a bit. 24 full requests? I must remove the dreaded drag from my epic tome. Sadness.

Mister Furkles said...

I guess 47.

There is a problem when you teach writers how to write a great query: Loads of good queries but the slush moves to the manuscript.

As best as memory serves: it was [maybe] Jenny Bent who said most [new?] authors don't know where their story begins. Maybe some of these boring openings are cases of good stories that start in the wrong place. Background starts were the norm in the nineteenth century when there was no TV, no computers, and no video games.

Most of us learned author stuff by reading classics recommended by schoolmarms we liked. In my crit group, most writers don't start with compelling stuff. But given a bit of patience, the good stuff shows up and that is where they should start the story. Some stories may start at the end: how did it ever come to this? Others start with someone who isn't the MC or even involved in the story after the first few pages--maybe a crime victim.

Janet, could you have an aide preview the manuscript to determine where the story should start. Then if it's after too many pages send back a response to revise the opening?

Movie openings are not a good ref. By the time a couple sits in theater seats, they've committed fifty to a hundred bucks. They won't walk out after five minutes.

Okay, I'm running off at the keyboard now. But reading books you dislike is training yourself to fail.

Mister Furkles said...

were no NOT was no

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

Mister Furkles,
Great question for all of us. Where does your story start?

Craig F said...

4, four, cuatro

I recently joined a local critique group. So far I have only seen one story that started in the right place.

The damaged MC is so easy to write a query about. It is hard to do the same things with an upstanding MC who gets caught with his pants up, doing normal things until a building falls on him.

nightsmusic said...

A very dear author friend of mine once told me, 'once you get your story on paper and have made a first pass through it, delete the first chapter and 99/100 times, that's where your story will really start.' For me, truer words were never spoken.

Donnaeve said...

Ah, nightsmusic, that is great advice - I breathed a sigh of relief at the fact that on page 7 of my latest WIP, there's a dramatic, life changing event for my characters. Yeehaw for me.

As to THE ROAD TO BITTERSWEET - it's page 10. Double yeehaws.

Yep. Still use Ms. Janet's info to check myself.

Timely info for those in the midst of it all, still writing, editing etc. Not so much for those lurking out here who know she's got their stuff. I bet there are certain eyeballs checking those mss as I write this...

I'll guess 6 fulls.

John Davis Frain said...

So interesting that you chose chess for the analogy, because chess and writing have much in common.

Easy to learn. Hard to master.

This post, like a chessmaster explaining the game, makes it all sound so simple. I suppose writers, like chessmasters, are glad it's not.

Excellent insight, thank you.

Dena Pawling said...



In my current MG wip with 5-7 pages in a chapter, chapter 1 starts with my MC sneaking out of the house to do something she's not supposed to do, and she gets caught. By chapter 3 she's running away from home. YAY I think this qualifies =)

I remember several weeks/months ago Janet indicated she had requested something in the neighborhood of 60 fulls. I don't know how many are left to read tho.

How many offers have you made yet?
=)


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Eleventeenthirty fulls.

BJ Muntain said...

A plot is a series of events that lead to a climax. If those events don't lead to a climax of some sort, they don't make up a plot.

How many fulls? Hmm. Well, Janet once said (if my memory can be trusted, and it can't be) she requested about 50 fulls per year. We're over half-way through the year, so I'll guess she's received... 30 fulls so far this year. She's had a busy year, so probably hasn't been able to read as many as she would like so far, so she's got... 15 left. Am I close?

Adele said...

46 fulls.

I once worked as a clerk at a police station. One of my duties was to type the statements people made to the police. They weren't recalling serious crimes, it was things like car accidents or witnessing a crime. It wasn't like on TV - there was no formal recorded interview; the people would just be given a statement form, extra pages, and a pen and asked to write down what happened.

At least 75% of the people would go back as far as the last time they could think of when their life was not tinged by what happened. If they were in a car accident at 1 pm, they would start with when they were eating toast for breakfast and how they finished up and put away the dishes and got their purse and got into the car and set out to drive somewhere. Often we would get 10 pages or more, and the last 2 or 3 would be what was wanted or needed - the rest was just setup. My point - that's the natural way people tell stories; it takes training to learn to throw away all that good stuff about the toast.

Karen McCoy said...

This is excellent advice, and I'll be filing it away for future reference.

It brings me to another question, though. I have one full out amid a sea of personalized rejections. Part of my concern is that too much is happening *to* my main character, and she's not taking enough initiative early on, even though there's lots of story and things are happening. Consistent feedback I'm getting runs along the lines of "This character didn't grab me enough to request more" and "while the premise is good, after reading the first chapter, I don't think this manuscript is for me."

So my question involves character agency in their own story. Is that a lot of what drives character interest? Or is it something else I might be missing?

Karen McCoy said...

I'm also awaiting the answer to Mister Furkles' excellent question. First pages are a bear.

kathy joyce said...

Karen, maybe your main character needs more emotional response to what's happening to her. She may not need to do more; she may need to feel more. Just a thought.

Karen McCoy said...

That is a good thought, Kathy! I'll definitely take that into account.

Colin Smith said...

Speaking of Jack Reacher, I LITERALLY just got through watching a presentation by Lee Child discussing why he believes the "rules of writing" are complete bunk. I commend this to you all, not because I totally agree with everything he says, or because I think you will all agree with him, but it will make you think. Among other things, he talks about:

* Why Elmore Leonard came up with those rules in the first place
* Why he believes "show don't tell" is complete nonsense
* Why he believes you can write great stories without liking any of the characters
* Why the writer-reader transaction is so unfair
* Why it matters to him that Jack Reacher isn't real

He also discusses how to create suspense... and it doesn't involve putting a much-loved character in a precarious situation every chapter.

His insights on the differences between writing for publication now as opposed to 20 years ago are also fascinating.

Here are the links. It'll take about an hour to watch through. Whoever posted them posted them in the wrong order. Watch them in THIS order:

CFA Master Class: Lee Child (Part 1)
CFA Master Class: Lee Child (Part 2)

RosannaM said...

I guess 13

I love Robert Frost--I actually went to a Junior High named after him.

The walk in the woods is so lovely that I want to meander down the path stopping to smell the wildflowers before I have to choose my less-traveled path. Perfectly fine for draft 1, when I have just begun to dance with my characters, not so much when I get ready to send my full.

And that is what makes all the difference. Thanks for the reminder, Janet.

Joseph Snoe said...

These type of entries make me nervous (Partly because I’m about done and wonder if I screwed up the beginning. Partly because one person’s good start is another person’s too early or too late start).

My personal experience: I submitted my first ten pages (and a synopsis to WLT). The biggest takeaway: The book took too long to develop before the action. Okay, I rewrote the beginning to start with action everywhere. I submitted the new opening to WLT the following year. The Takeaway: There was too much going on too soon. I needed to develop the characters first.

Well, dang.

Julie Weathers (Bless her heart) read my manuscript. Her takeaway: I needed to delete the first 60 to 80 pages. I deleted most of them and started with and expanded an incident that was two paragraphs in the middle of chapter five or six. The big action part is now on page 18, but the first 17 pages introduce six characters and their relationships (and allude to two more characters). I hope people like it.

Karen McCoy said...

Sounds like good revisions, Joseph. My problem is the opposite--everything happens way too fast. I've tried to slow down my intro, but maybe I need to let people take things in first before I bombard them with what happens...

kathy joyce said...

Joseph, can't wait to read your book!

I think RosannaM has an important point. We have to write those first 30, or 60, or 80 pages to build the world and the characters. We have to write them so *we* understand the story. When we edit though, those pages have to move or be deleted. (Well, at least, I had to write them first. Now I understand better what stays, goes, moves, etc.)

Joseph Snoe said...

Janet Reid’s distinction between a story and a series of events seems clear. Her examples were crystal clear. Unfortunately, a novel is 300 pages and there are lots of what could easily be classified as a series of events in them. Trying to distinguish them from the story can drive you crazier than you are for starting the project in the first place.

Joseph Snoe said...


Thank you, Kathy Joyce.

I have so many people telling me they can’t wait to to read Escape from Brazil that I feel I’ll be letting them down if it’s not published. Plus I think it’s pretty good.

I’m going too long but this is my final allowed post today. I have observed that in many drafts a writer is learning about their character as they write. In fact, they are developing the characters’ back story and personality. As great as that is, most of it needs to go. It might be better to write a few chapters of backstory about a character before starting the book. That way the writer will have a better feel for how the character will act , and may even make short references to something as the book develops . But there’s no reason to take you reader through the same path of discovery.


Ardenwolfe said...

Very helpful and insightful.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


18 fulls.

Lucy Crowe said...

Thanks, Janet! Great advice! *Combs frantically through her first twenty pages.*

Lennon Faris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lennon Faris said...

Too many fulls, and yet never enough.

This post is a pithy summation of what I have been learning about my WIP the past 6 years. After reading this, I quickly clicked out of it and opened up my WIP to check where things fell on pg 50.

Adele, I like that - throw away the toast.

John Davis Frain said...

Colin, thank you so much for those links.

I'm in Saturday heaven.

Steve Stubbs said...

I have to repeat myself and say once again how much I appreciate your blog. The points you have made the past couple of days are very subtle (to this observer, anyway) and I will be chewing on them for some time.

I am (finally) wrapping up a WIP in which the conflict is set up in the first sentence and the MC is up to her eyebrows in poop halfway through the first page. Now you have me wondering if that is fast enough or intense enough. People nowadays are impatient!

Jack Reacher takes a lot longer to get started, but I am no Lee Child. (That is a secret, so don't tell anybody.)

And thanks to C. Smith for the linx. Very much appreciated. Some infidels may disagree with him, but when Lee Child speaks, the story telling world listens.

kdjames.com said...

Y'know, there's nothing wrong with writing a couple chapters of backstory at the beginning. I do it often. It's my way of writing myself into the story and there are I times I need to do that to figure out what's going on. The reader doesn't need that information, but I do. The key is to realize that IS what you're doing and keep in mind that you'll need to cut most, if not all, of it.

Do whatever works.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I'm wondering about people like me who enjoy simple stories where not much happens. I read books like this all the time. I'm reading one now. There are six full chapters of getting people in place. The event that's supposed to be sorta startling happens around page 62. I say "sorta" because what happens is revealed on the jacket. So, it's really not startling at all. But I'm enjoying the telling of this tale.

Here's some stats about it: This debut novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer, a UK National Book Award winner, and a New York Times bestseller. It is published in more than 25 languages and 30 countries.

And there are six chapters of uneventful backstory and learning about how the characters dress and what they like to eat. My take-away is: Pay attention to the rules, never stop learning... but just write the best damn story you can.

Colin Thanks for those links. And I'm going to guess 17 fulls.

Dena Pawling said...


I read A Man Called Ove by audio book about a year ago. I almost gave up on it because it has a very slow start. I'm glad I stuck with it and I enjoyed it, but I think it was the slowest book I've ever finished.


Colin Smith said...

You're welcome, y'all. :)

I didn't make a guess at the number of requested fulls. Hmmm... how about...

25

:)

8/12/1

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

Ooooohh, this is gooooooooood.

Craig F said...

I have, at last, made it past the first two chapters of an Elizabeth Moon book. I have given up on a couple of hers because they seemed so slow. Now I have to go back and dig out a few of those I gave up on.

The story builds soon after she spends a lot of time grounding you in her world. Without that world building at the beginning it would be somewhat, but not impossible, to understand where she is going.

For a first time writer I am not sure this would work. This is mainly because of those first five pages you send to an agent. With luck and a good plot maybe they will be read. May your query have enough of the force to make it happen.

I start with a bang and the dribble and drab backstory into the story. I hope it works because I have entered the trenches today.

Karen: Is the one full you have out the only one? If it is I would say you query does not portray your MC strongly enough. Consider something to make he/she/it more sentimental.

Unknown said...

Short, sweet, and to the point. Many writing books and tutorials can't break it down like Janet.

Joseph Snoe said...

Best of successes for you, Craig F

William Plante said...

Exceedingly Helpful

RachelErin said...

I would only add that 'something happening' can look different in different categories and genres. And that the 'something' in the first 1-3 chapters may not be the main something of the story. Donald Maass has this great idea of a bridging conflict, that allows a story to have both something with stakes early on, and allows the author to introduce the main conflict in chapter 5 or 6.

During my second novel, I've come to think the whole 'editing your first chapter' is a misleading phrase - events and information in your first five chapters may need to be reworked into your first chapter. It's beyond just making a great first line/paragraph/page.

G said...

I'm going to disagree. A lot of genres, such as fantasy or cozy mystery, require a full setup so the readers can get invested in the characters before something big happens. In a lot of fantasy novels, the first three chapters are primarily setting up the world. You don't necessarily HAVE to have an inciting incident on page 1. That is bad advice.