f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Blink – Rejected After Three Pages?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Blink – Rejected After Three Pages?

Some editors, when they are feeling snippy, will claim to know whether a book is publishable after three pages. They’re wrong, but it sounds imperious and impressive, doesn’t it? (We usually say it with a sneer and a cackle, too.)

My process is more like this:

Read ten or so pages. Ten pages is enough to tell whether the nuts-and-bolts writing is impressive enough for me to keep reading. Rare are the books that are written in cliché and weak language for fifteen pages that suddenly turn into Joseph Heller.

At this point, I will reject books based on their writing not meeting our standards. Many books I’ve seen from you guys make it past this stage.

The next step is to read another 50-60 pages. At this point, I’ve gained a feeling for your actual storytelling ability. Lots of people can write 25 pages of intriguing set-up and strong voice…only to have it go nowhere from page 26-60. This amount allows the book’s themes to be developed, the characters to emerge more, and most importantly, the book’s internal structure to emerge.

For me, this is where I reject the majority of the manuscripts that come to me. Many books become aimless. Many books lose their strong voice and become mundane. Many books devolve into expositional dialogue. Usually when I reject books at this stage, my comments are something like, “You’re writing is decent, but you’ve got to work on….”

Writers chafe a bit at this, I know. “You need to read the whole book to get the full experience. I write a wonderful conclusion.” Maybe so, but how many readers are going to bear with a boring story for 100 pages to get to the good part. 60 dull pages out of a 300 page manuscript is 20%. My feeling is that a manuscript from a first-time novelist needs to be 20% great, 70% good, and 10% less-than-good to be considered heavily by me. I don’t expect you to hand in perfection. But with these numbers you’re turning in twice as much wonderful stuff as bad stuff. And so it seems far more likely that we can fix the 10% and bump up a good portion of the 70% to “great.”

If I get past 75 pages or so, I usually try to make it through to the end. Books can still end up not working…for a variety of reasons. (Which is why I feel you need to finish the manuscript before trying to sell it to me.) Even so, the elements present are strong enough that I want to try and discover, specifically, where the writer’s weaknesses are. These writers tend to receive my most detailed feedback. Perhaps the story is salvageable. Even if not, the writer has proven herself to be perhaps only a step or two from turning in a workable manuscript and that’s someone I want to keep in touch with.

Books get rejected for lots of other reasons, too. Sometimes, I may find a book decent after 75 pages, but the direction it’s going simply doesn’t match what BHP wants to do. That’s hard to hear as an author, but all we can do is shrug and part ways. If there’s one thing I know about this business is that as a writer you NEED to be with a publisher who is EXCITED about your writing. That’s a must. Otherwise, the chances for your book achieving success are pretty slim. (Unless you have 35,000 relatives waiting to buy a copy.)

Another thing I want to say is that my rejections are never meant to be the death-knell for your writing career. I’m not Simon Cowell. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone to give up writing. I welcome hearing back from writers later in the future as they improve and mature and try new things.

Those early ten pages are critical though in making your story favorable in my mind. The best thing to do is have an acquisition editor wanting a story to be good. We’ll forgive things and read further. So be talented. Be innovative. Revise. Perfect. And let’s see what comes of it.