No Dogs Need Apply? KY dials his mouthpiece

At the recent RWA conference a panel of 2 reputable agents and an editor held an "American Idol" workshop in which someone read the first 2 pages of a manuscript. The panel would say 'stop' when they felt they'd reached the rejection point. For many, it was obvious that the writing didn't hold up. However, in others, it seemed arbitrary. The fact that they said they hardly ever looked at the query letter but went straight to the pages seemed unfair, as they would reject something set outside the US, for example, as soon as a location was mentioned. However, stories often begin with an 'elsewhere' incident, and the action could move to their good old US of A on page 3, which they wouldn't get to if one of their reject countries was mentioned in paragraph 2.

One way around this might be to call that incident a prologue, in which case one would hope they'd read on if the writing was strong enough, but then we hear that prologues aren't in favor, especially when the action picks up only a short time afterward.

Since the panel was requesting partials from a few who made it through two pages without being cut off, I'd think they weren't being arbitrary. It's enlightening to see what kind of slush you wade through daily. But it's scary to think that agents will toss your stuff without even the slightest interest in the 'whole' picture and decide they know where the book is going based on three paragraphs. Are we that predictable?

What's a poor novice to do? If my writing sucks, or my story doesn't interest you based on a query, so be it. But what if my chances are shot to heck because I set an opening action scene in another country, or mention a dog (yes, KY, some agents say they auto-reject dogs)? We don't have a master list of what not to do for each agent's pet peeves.

This is exactly why the phrase "query widely" appears regularly in Miss Snark's pearls of wisdom. This is why you do NOT make a list of three "dream agents" and get all pouty when they say no, or worse, get pouty if they pass it along to an assistant or colleague who DOES like it.

There is no checklist. There is no master list. All you can do is query everyone you can and write as well as you can. Some queries are going to be rejected for arbitrary (foreign lands) and/or stupid (no dogs) reasons.

I can see this is frustrating as hell to writers, but honest to dog, there isn't a short cut around it. Don't be tempted by anyone who tells you there is. Usually that shortcut come attached to an invoice amount and a lot of hype.

Query widely.


Anonymous said...

That is the most appalling thing I've heard today. I can't believe self-supporting agents would reject good work for arbitrary reasons like where it is set. As a reader, I'm offended, because I LIKE to read well-written books set in places I can't go myself. Heard of escapism??? And the format of that workshop sounds like an ideal way to forever turn off a writer with talent who isn't quite ready for primetime. How discouraging! Writing is a difficult enough endeavor without adding in public humiliation. Aren't workshops for learning to write better, not for discouraging the neophytes? Miss Snark, what do you think of this shoot-'em-down format?

alau said...

I was just at a writers' conference this weekend where Amy Tan, who is now the literary fiction editor of the L.A. Times said she usually reads the 1st 2 lines, and if they don't hook her, she reads the last line. That, I think is totally acceptable (because there is alot of bad crap you have to wade through).

But to reject it on a foreign setting? That's interesting because as a reader, I specifically look for books set in non-U.S., non-European locations. Well, that's why you should query widely I suppose.

Anonymous said...

I'm really shocked and discouraged to hear that there is some consortium of agents who laughingly applaud themselves for rejecting even a well-written novel if it is set outside of the US. This is so random and snide - I can just imagine them over cocktails, sneering at the unsuspecting writers who didn't know that Hanoi is outre this year, or that London is so 'not literary'.

"Oh Blinky, can you just imagine - today I passed on two Tuscanys, a Toronto and an Instanbul..."

"That's nothing Septimus, I've decided that since Harold broke up with me, I'll accept no manuscripts with protagonists whose name begins with the letter "H"..."

"Blinky, how clever...you go girl...but what shall we do next week...how about, nothing that mentions a street name in the first five pages...whadya say? Now where's my mojito?"

Anonymous said...

Cynthia writes:

I hesitate to post this comment, but I'm going to do it anyway. I was there at that workshop, and while it was blunt and honest, those who submitted sample pages knew going in that it was not going to be an atta-girl kinda thing.

For me, this was the absolute most useful workshop of the conference, because it SHOWED (not told, lol) how editors and agents really, really wanted to love the story, but we as writers frequently commit all sorts of errors that pull them out of the story.

Arbitrary? No more arbitrary a soul exists than a book buyer down at the local Wal-Mart, flipping open the first page of a book. THIS is what we're dealing with, folks. And editors and agents are PAID EXPERTS on what the great mass of readers will BUY. Agents and editors make their living judging the market. Trust 'em already, okay?

The panel members frequently prefaced their comments with, "This is a highly subjective business, and this is MY opinion," but honestly, I think that's rather obvious.

The main problems they had with the majority of the samples fell into three categories: (1) the character was passive, and in a transition stage (driving, daydreaming, thinking, thinking, thinking); (2) the word imagery used by the writers evoked negative "ewww" images; (3) the opening drowned in details that did not move the scene forward.

For me, it reminded me viscerally that this was all about the PROJECT. They wanted to love these stories, really. They gave each one a clean, fresh start with an open mind -- you could see that on their faces.

And frequently, later on, they would comment on a story they'd been critical of, adding a more positive comment on what worked -- after the poor writer had streaked for the door.

I feel for those writers, really, I do. BUT ... this is how it is, my fellow writers. We have no control over what the market will buy (and this IS mass market); we have no control over what will push an editor's/agent's buttons; ALL we have control over is our writing.

So to paraphrase and borrow from Strunk, make every word count. Make your writing tight, clean and convey the images you WANT in the reader's mind. If you do that, you can survive something far worse than a panel of three experts ... you can survive that arbitrary soul down at the local Wal-Mart.

Anonymous said...

This comes (unfortunately) as no surprise to me. Even reading blogs you discover bizarre and seemingly trivial reasons for a ms rejection.

Query with a wide net and don't take anything personal. I'm only an expert on the rejection side so far, but I'd have to completely agree with the query widely advice.

Anonymous said...

Rejected for mentioning a dog? Sic KY on 'em!

Anonymous said...

I think it's fairly realistic.
How many of us have opened a book, read the first page and put it back on the shelf? If it doesn't grab you right away, if there are writng flaws, it's going to annoy. The most brutal thing I've done was chuck an Anita Shreve novel after the second sentence. Poor construction. No way was I going to suffer through a whole book of it.

I've been through Evil Editor's site, and wonder how many novels have been workshopped prior to writing the query and also submitting them to agents.

I know that my own experiences in workshops that last a duration of several weeks (not weekend ones) have been invaluable in my development. They've also been good because I've met people who combine a combination of trustworthiness and the ability to be brutal (in writers' terms) in giving a good critique.

Jenna Black said...

Keep in mind--this workshop was for ROMANCE novels. For whatever weird reason, romance novels set in exotic settings don't sell well even when written by established writers with known track records. Therefore, an agent or editor is not going to be eager to take a chance on a first novel set somewhere that experience says won't sell. (It doesn't mean no one will take it, it just means the book already has a big strike against it.)

This is not an arbitrary decision--it's a decision based on the market realities. (Of course, some day, someone's going to take a chance on an exotic setting and sell a zillion copies, and then everyone's going to want exotic settings . . .)

Anonymous said...

The problems started when the younger of the two agents ran out of witticisms. Yanno(TM) how it is when you're watching a standup act that is SO not working? The arbitrary rejection of material that they might otherwise have accepted was mostly due to a (failed) attempt to establish some running jokes.

Miss Snark is right: QUERY WIDELY. You never know when your material is going to land on the desk of someone who's suffering ill effects from the past-its-prime braunschweiger s/he had for lunch.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was there, and I agree that the workshop was honest, and that many rejections were for the reasons given. It wasn't advertised as a 'gentle, stroking' session, and it lived totally up to expectations.

However, the initial question concerned the fact that a rejection based on 2 or 3 paragraphs containing a 'won't buy a book set in XXX' did a disservice to the author because an opening paragraph set in XXX does not mean the rest of the book is set there, and if these agents admit to not looking at a query letter, then that's an 'arbitrary' dismissal in my book, and one that could be totally wrong. I think most readers check out back cover copy before turning to page 1, and that should give clues as to where the book is going.

Meanwhile, I have a novel with a 3 page 1st scene out of the country, where the protagonist encounters the bad guys and steals something they want. I'm thinking maybe I should call it a prologue -- although then I'll turn off the agents who don't want prologues -- query widely. Very widely. Yep.

And, dang, there's a dog in the novel, too! Even more widely.

Anonymous said...


I'm glad you posted. That panel sounds like a valuable real-world lesson on getting published.

After three manuscripts and a two-year agent search, I finally have a book deal. There's no hand-holding during the submission process, agent or editor, and you're lucky if you get more than a form rejection. The writers who participated were lucky enough to get the straight deal on why their work isn't marketable, so they can save time and stamps marketing something that isn't ready, and use the time instead to improve the manuscript.

And I'm sure these folks knew the rules before reading. If you want rah-rahs, call your mother. Even your mother will tell you life isn't fair, publishing included. If you want to get published, understand the process and work within it. You can pout and be indignant all day long, but at the end of it, the only change you can affect is the quality and marketability of your manuscript.


Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised at this, because as a reader, I've long suspected that any historical romance that isn't set in Great Britain is likely to be automatically rejected.

(This troubles me because my favorite books by Judith Ivory, "Bliss," "Dance," and also "Beast," were set mostly in -- horror of horrors! -- France! As these editors keeping me from wonderfully written books just because a certain setting is trendy?)

Anonymous said...

Something like that hapened to me in dear old academia decades ago. While at the U, I entered the annual Lit. contest in several categories. I won 1st& 2nd in Essays, 1st& 2nd in Plays, 1st& 3rd in Free Verse, but earned zilch in Short Story. The top judge told me later that mine were possibly the best, but he preferred stories set in the good old USA.

Anonymous said...

No DOGS???


I wonder how many of those agents I've queried?

My protag is treed by a mastiff on page 4 :-)

(He turns out to be a very sweet mastiff btw.)

Anyway, I'd sure like a list of agents who auto-reject anything about dogs. Too bad I'm deep into querying or I'd ask them as I went along and compile a list for my blog! LOL

Sal said...

Great comments, Cynthia.

For those who aren't keeping track, Evil Editor has moved "openings" over to Evil Editor's Openings. (Why he chose that name is anyone's guess!)

EE minions can submit the first 150 wds of their mopus agnum and other minions will add the next 75 wds. EE chooses the best continuation and reposts it to EE.

EE continues to critique query letters and add sausage to the stuffing.


Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised by the idea that some rejections seem arbitrary; different people like or dislike different things and agents want to rep the kind of stories they like. I am concerned by the idea that an agent can judge a story within the 1st two pages and Amy Tan takes 2 lines. OK, if the writing is awful I can understand (though that definition would filter out many of the writers on the best seller lists). But I'm currently marketing a thriller and no one dies on page one and there's no real action until page 4-5. I've thought about the prologue hook, but those strike me as cheesy. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a new take on a workshop given by an established editor from the Harlequin/Sil group that I attended at a couple of RWA National Conferences.

Writers would voluntarily submit one-page synopses beforehand, and the editor would put them on an overhead. She went through line by line, explaining how something worked, while something else didn't, what the conflict was, what the motivation was, what was missing, why she'd want to read a manuscript (or not),etc.

It was an excellent learning experience. Not necessarily kind to those whose work was displayed, but not hurtful. The editor was very professional, and it was an excellent tool to seeing the evaluation process at work. There was no spite, no snark (sorry), no making jokes at the writer's expense.

If a panelist used a submission as a springboard to a joke, that's beyond mean. It's uncalled for, and unprofessional. There are a lot of people out there who look to enjoy someone else's discomfort, and some of them are agents and editors.

Kanani said...

I think it helps a lot if you've had the experience of submitting shorter works to journals and magazines and getting used to being rejected a few times.
Here's a small reality:
University literary journals receive 25 - 30,000 submission per year. They are staffed by volunteers, a few paid part-timers and graduate students. Your chance of being picked for a publication that comes out only 4x a year is slim. They have piles AND piles of work, much of it worthy, to choose from.

In their perusing the stacks (which takes place in addition to editing, organizing, and a million other things), they often will only read the first paragraph. If the tone, style, or purpose doesn't smack them between the eyes, it's rejected.

What's arbitrary to us, isn't to them. They know what they're looking for.

Which is why you really do need to query widely. What isn't one person's cup of tea migh be someone else's.

Frankly, I find prologues annoying. Work that info into the body of your work.

Here's what Elmore Leonard has to say:
Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

Anonymous said...

To anon where nobody dies in the first two lines ...

All you have to do is make your protag want something. The reader just has to want to know what happens next to keep reading. Nobody has to die.

Oh, and write really really well, of course.

The Metal Maiden said...

Early this spring, someone from a "superstar" agency rejected me after praising my writing style. "The plot is intriguing," she added, "and normally I'd ask to see the rest. But you're wasting your time with this one. In light of world events...not even Grisham could sell a manuscript with a Dane as the main character..." And after reading Miss Snark's original post, I suspect this woman's decision was cemented by my story's opening (in Denmark, of course).

Had she not declined it based on a Danish character, I'd have *never* believed a story set outside the US might be automatically dismissed. Still shaking my head over that one; it makes no sense.

It's all subjective, I know. That feedback was likely intended as an eye-opener from someone who meant well. But it felt like a gut-punch.

Still working on my writerly "thick"-skin, absolutely...

Unknown said...

Listen, I can dress up like the Queen of England, and wear Prada shoes, but underneath my body still looks like shit!

As far as EE goes, I prefer to limit my torture, so I would submit only to a)a Spanish Inquisitor or b) Agents Tweedle Dee and Dum in their home office, and not from a convention where some mensa genius activities director thinks its cool to imitate American Abomination!

Yes, I know everyone participated willingly, and gained a tidbit of knowledge here and there, but was it worth the public mockery of being crapped on? Stay home and let your dog do that.

There are two rules I absolutely adhere to.

1. I don't put my work online at any time for anybody to see. If you have a good critique group around you at home, use them. If not,then submit your work to a good agent and let fall what may. Just be sure to follow the rules.

2. I would never submit my work for review at a convention. For one thing Gin and Tequila don't mix well.
Secondly, my stay at the Blitz Motel would limit my articulation to four words: Jimmy, Buffett, me, again.

As far as queries and synopsis go, if you can't write one, you really need to consider going back to College and taking some creative writing courses before you even attempt to submit your book.

Anonymous said...

Jenna raised a good point, one which I will attempt to clarify. They were not only looking for the first two pages to clearly be romance, but they also wanted them to be easily recognizable as such to the lowest common denominator of reader. They made this abundantly clear. Do I agree with it? Well, if that's what they want to represent, that's fine by me. Someone's gotta do it. *VBG*

Ob nitpick: It would've been fair to point out, Jenna, that one of the agents in question represents you.

Anonymous said...

cynthia et al,

Maybe I'm an oddball, but I don't look at the first page when I'm at the bookstore, or even the tenth. I turn immediately to page 100 or so and give it a look-see. This gives a better idea of what the writing is really like. Sometimes beginnings are slow, but the story takes off in chapter three. Sometimes the author has polished the first 5000 words to a high-gloss sheen, and the rest of the novel bites the big bone.

The only time I ever base my decision to buy on first pages is when I'm browsing online, and the first chapter is all they offer as a sample.

That said, I know the rest of the book-buying public is probably not like me, so I'm trying to make my openings as snappy as I can. There's wishing the world was as it should be, and then there's living in it as it is.

Anonymous said...

With knfbwqxt as the word verification, who could resist?

I notice a drift in this comment thread from the original question, which was: if an agent stops reading at a specific 'buzz word' and does NOT read the query, then they're making a blind assumption about the entire work.

If a novel set in San Francisco except for the first 3 pages which are set in South America is rejected for being set in South America -- that's just plain wrong. One brief scene takes place there.

The agency does request a query letter, but admitted that they often don't bother to read them, another stumbling block because they won't find out that the action isn't set somewhere exotic.

I merely used this example of something that seemed a bit on the unfair side. To me, it's like saying you'll walk out of a restaurant if there was a tomato in your salad, even though the other 3 courses may be outstanding.

Sure -- you've got the right to do whatever you want, as do these agents. It's just frustrating to an author who is rejected because the agent jumps to an incorrect conclusion.

Jenna Black said...

Another Cynthia--
I just saw a bunch of comments about how arbitrary it seemed to reject works set in a foreign country and thought it was important for readers to know that the workshop was romance-specific, and that's a romance-specific prejudice. I didn't think that my agent being on that panel had any relevence. (I didn't attend the workshop, so I'm commenting on the comments here, not on the workshop itself.) But yes, my agent was one of the agents in question.

Jude said...

I was at the panel too, and it was definitely eye-opening to have them dismiss a story because "politicians are not sexy," or "kids are not sexy."

I only stayed for the first 20-30 minutes because sarscasm and mockery are not my style, but I did post about the session if anyone is interested in knowing more about Lucia, Miriam and Irene's tastes/preferences. Granted, it's just a tiny snapshot.

Lucia won an award at the conference, I hear lots of people rave about having Miriam as an agent, and of course Irene is a legend, so their playing Simon, Paula and Randy with the same kind of commentary is probably not the most accurate impression one could get of them.

I think I am looking more for the Tim Russert version of that panel, rather than the American Idol version.

Anonymous said...

Cynthia writes:

Jude, first I want to say that you must have taken excellent notes, because you did quote the three verbatim on some of the things that were said in that first 20-30 minutes. I didn't remember half of that stuff until I read it this morning (before, mind you, I commented on the post in the first place).

Still, a tiny, tiny quibble: aren't you doing the same thing folks on this comments trail are accusing the agents and editor of doing? Judging the whole of something by a small part of it?

But that's what we all do, isn't it? Predict whether something is worth our very limited time by the part that we see (whether that's p. 1 or page 100)?

As for the commenter who said never to put your work out there in such a setting ... I disagree. No risk, no growth. There is no way, NO way, I would have turned down an opportunity for three publishing professionals of that stature to clap their squinty eyes on my work and tell me what pulled them out of it.

Also, please keep in mind that they often said that these are not hard and fast rules -- you can have a foriegn setting in the first two pages of your romance novel -- or in the whole book, but it just has to be that much more better. It has to be the best of the best, to withstand the market pressures -- market pressures that haven't been decided, ultimately, by editors and agents, but that reader down at Wal-Mart -- or even more sophisticated readers.

An example: years ago, I had a friend who liked horror/paranormal AND books written by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. So I thought it was a no-brainer to recommend to him Hotel Transylvania. It never occurred to me that a foriegn/non-English setting would be off-putting.

He tried the book, but very soon handed it back to me, saying in a sheepish voice, "I just don't like all the foriegn names." He hadn't got beyond the first few pages.

Keep in mind that this guy was the proud possessor of a Ph.D -- and a pubbed writer.

OK, this is my last comment on this -- in life, you're supposed to take what you can use and leave the rest behind. I found more things than not useful in that workshop; I will use that and move forward.

Beth said...

I'm currently marketing a thriller and no one dies on page one and there's no real action until page 4-5.

Do you have conflict in the first paragraph, though? By conflict I don't mean characters fighting each other. I mean story conflict. A character who wants something and can't have it. A mystery or a puzzle. Some question raised that makes us want to keep reading to find out the answer. If you don't have that, then you need to rewrite the opening.

Anonymous said...

I’m guessing cynthia #1 is the same one who posted on eharlequin.com’s message board that she got a ‘partial request’ from RWA Idol? They were nice about my manuscript too, but that doesn’t mean I approved of what they did to other people. That stunk.

People, even if they hated your manuscript, you can still send them a partial. IGLA has an open sub policy. They’re not going to remember you as the person who ran out of the room.

Of course, there’s the question of whether you’d want them to rep you, and that’s where I’m at right now.

Anonymous said...

And here, I just *loved* some of Jenny Crusie's dogs! :-)