I’ve talked to dozens of agents and editors about what makes them stop reading submissions. We’ve chatted on planes and on yachts, in several countries, on several continents. We’ve chatted at luncheons and dinners and late nights in bars.
Some agents and editors shared general ideas regarding why they quit reading.
They said things like:
- First paragraph didn’t impress me.
- Story didn’t hold my interest. I wanted to skim.
- Couldn’t connect with characters.
- The writing was amateurish.
Many shared the dreaded, “I don’t know why, but it didn’t work for me.”
Aack! Not useful for writers.
Writers need to know what to avoid doing, and what to do. They need specifics. I teach writers how to make their writing stronger.
I compiled a fifty point list about openings that includes points from agents and editors as well as deep editing points from me. We’ll look at my top ten.
Margie’s Top Ten Reasons Why Agents and Editors Stop Reading
- Didn’t get locked in POV character’s skin in first or second sentence.
- No setting. No idea where we were. Floating heads.
- No hint about a story promise.
- Boring blocks of backstory.
- Voice wasn’t distinctive.
- Flat writing. Didn’t use structure and style to make the read cadence-driven.
- Opened with a dream or flashback. Fooled the reader.
- Confusing. Stuff happened, but I didn’t know why, so I didn’t care.
- Too nicey-nice. No tension.
- Overwritten. Writerly. Trying too hard to impress.
I’ll share two openings in this blog. The first is the opening from Katie McGarry’s debut novel, a YA, Pushing the Limits.
Pushing the Limits, by Katie McGarry, Margie-Grad
That's how I would have loved to respond to Mrs. Collins's question, but my father placed too much importance on appearance for me to answer honestly. Instead, I blinked three times and said, "Fine."
Mrs. Collins, Eastwick High's new clinical social worker, acted as if I hadn't spoken. She shoved a stack of files to the side of her already cluttered desk and flipped through various papers. My new therapist hummed when she found my three-inch-thick file and rewarded herself with a sip of coffee, leaving bright red lipstick on the curve of the mug. The stench of cheap coffee and freshly sharpened pencils hung in the air.
My father checked his watch from the chair to my right and, on my left, the Wicked Witch of the West shifted impatiently. I was missing first period calculus, my father was missing some very important meeting, and my stepmother from Oz? I'm sure she was missing her brain.
Katie McGarry’s strong writing put me in her POV character’s skin in that high school counselor’s office. Her writing also made me smile.
I’ll flip my top ten list now and make it what to do, not what to avoid.
Margie’s Top Ten Checklist for Openings
1. Locked reader in POV character’s skin in first or second sentence. Yes.
2. Shared setting. Yes.
3. Shared hint about a story promise. Yes. Dealing with her brother’s death and father and step-mother.
4. No boring block of backstory. Correct. We learned a lot about the POV character, but the backstory was shared in a fun way.
We learned she’s seeing her high school counselor, and has a long history of counseling. Her father is a control freak, her brother died, she has a wicked step-mother, and she’s probably a junior or senior, and smart, because she’s taking calculus.
5. Distinctive voice. Yes. Several humor hits. Fun style.
6. Empowered writing. Used structure and style to make the read cadence-driven.
She used three rhetorical devices: alliteration, eponym (Wicked Witch of the West, Oz), and mesodiplosis.
Mesodiplosis -- repeating a word or phrase at the middle of three or more subsequent clauses.
7. She did not open with a dream or flashback or try to fool the reader.
8. Clarity ruled. I knew what was happening to whom, and why.
9. We had tension.
10. Nothing was overwritten or writerly.
Writerly is my term for those words and phrases and sentences that don’t sound like natural thoughts or natural dialogue. They sound like a writer wrote them.
~ ~ ~ ~
The second opening is from Laura Drake.
Sweet on You, Laura Drake, 2014 RITA Winner, Margie-Grad, Immersion-Grad
Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan
Another night of blood and adrenaline.
Katya Smith pulled her shower-wet hair into a bun. The weight of exhaustion tugged at her, but the fine hum of tension running just under her skin warned that she wouldn’t sleep.
Yet, beyond that, resting close to her heart, was a firm pillow of satiety. They’d saved two soldiers’ lives last night.
Being alone in the small, fake-wood–paneled room of the Quonset hut was an odd occurrence, given her three roommates. But Role 3 hospital inhaled medical personnel. They must be working a shift. The army was so desperate for medics that Katya had been transferred from physical therapy to triage medic two years ago.
She took the few steps to the American flag-draped wall and the small chalkboard beneath it, almost covered in chalk lines. Neat bundles of five, representing men that they’d saved from the enemy. She picked up the chalk, to add her night’s conquests, but hesitated. Keeping score against the bad guys only made sense if you were clear that there was an actual bad guy.
That’s not right. The enemy they fought in the ER wasn’t the Afghani insurgents.
It was death.
Laura Drake always delivers powerful openings, and powerful books. Masterful writing. If we used my checklist above, we’d have every point covered.
Laura shared a hint about the story promise. We expect a trauma, probably a death. The full story promise is revealed within a few pages.
~ ~ ~ ~
Review the list. Which of those ten points can you control?
The writer can control all those points! No excuses. You can learn how to make your opening pop!
Remember—this post just shared my top ten out of fifty teaching points about openings.
I teach a month-long online class through Lawson Writer’s Academy: A Deep Editing Guide to Make Your Openings Pop! I’ll teach Make Your Openings Pop online next May. But the lecture packet (over 130 pages of lectures) is available through my website all the time.
BLOG GUESTS: IT’S YOUR TURN! Say Hi! Or – share what makes you stop reading.
Post a comment and you could win an online course from Lawson Writer’s Academy!
Check out the courses we’re offering in January:
1. Screenwriting Strategies for Fiction Writers, Instructor: Susie McCauley
2. From Blah to Beats: Giving Your Chapter a Pulse, Instructor: Rhay Christou
3. Virtues, Vices, and Plots, Instructor: Sarah Hamer
4. Creating Reader’s Guides for Young Adult and Middle Grade Books, Instructor: Koreen Myers
5. 30 Days to a Stronger Novel, Instructor: Lisa Wells
Thank you for your time. See you on the blog!
Want to read Margie's other five rules for bestselling writing? Click here.
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Margie Lawson —psychotherapist, editor, and international presenter – teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over eighty full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Writers credit her innovative deep editing approaches with taking their writing several levels higher—to publication, awards, and bestseller lists.
To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes (in Colorado, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Columbus, Dallas, Seattle, San Antonio, Houston, Jacksonville, Washington, D.C., and on Whidbey Island), her full day Master Class presentations, keynote speeches, on-line courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit www.margielawson.com.