Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Baker's Dozen: Reasons for Rejection

As a voracious lover of feedback (as most of us are), I thought I'd take some time to share some of the reasons why Jodi and I rejected entries for the Baker's Dozen Auction.

Bear in mind, of course, the subjectivity of all this.  Neither Jodi nor I claim to be Empress of Slush.  (I'd rather be Empress of something else, anyway.  Like chocolate.  Or the universe.)  Still, I do hope that our combined eye has been discerning enough to perhaps give some of you a few things to think about as you continue to write/revise/edit/polish.


I'm fairly sure I've touched on this in the past, but there does seem to be a trend--particularly in YA and MG--of starting a story by jumping directly into high-stakes action.  It's born, I think, from the pressure we receive to "grab the reader!" and "start the story somewhere interesting!".  Yet, frankly, it backfires.  And here's why.

If I open a book and someone is running for his life on the first page, I don't really care whether he dies or not--BECAUSE I DON'T KNOW HIM.  Or if, after one paragraph of introduction (or perhaps no introduction at all), someone is flying through the windshield of a car or waking up in a pool of blood or diving into a subway entrance to avoid an explosion--I DON'T CARE.  Because I'm not invested.

And I think the problem--and Jodi agrees--is that folks are confusing ACTION with CONFLICT.  And they're not the same thing.  A good novel will begin with inherent conflict, which is ultimately what makes us want to keep reading (assuming the writing is good).  But dropping the reader into the middle of a battlefield or onto the balcony of a burning building isn't going to automatically make him CARE.

I think, as writers, we need to constantly reevaluate what CONFLICT means.  And to be careful not to confuse it with ACTION, which doesn't necessarily belong in the opening pages.  It was, more often than not, a fairly quick "no" from Jodi and me.


Sometimes the opening page was so confusing we weren't even sure what was going on.  This doesn't mean there wasn't a good story to follow.  It just means that the opening didn't do anything to make us want to know what that story was.

I think there are three specific things that can make an opening confusing:

1.  TOO MUCH ACTION:  If there's so much going on that we can't follow it, there's nothing that makes us want to continue reading.  This is, of course, directly related to what I listed above.  Being dropped into the middle of a storm of action is disorienting.

2.  NO GROUNDING IN THE WORLD:  Setting the stage for your world is a delicate balance of details-without-too-many-details.  If too much is thrown in at once--or if there isn't enough to go on--the reader will not know where/when he is, or where/when everyone in the story is.  And if there's confusion like this on the first page, it doesn't bode well for the worldbuilding in the rest of the novel.

3.  WRITING THAT ISN'T CLEAN:  This goes without saying.  The words themselves will lend to the clarity of your opening scene.  Sometimes, the confusion factor is directly related to sentence and paragraph structure.  (Or lack thereof.)


Writing can be halfway decent but still lack a compelling voice.  And voice isn't something you develop overnight.  In fact, it isn't even something that someone can tell you how to do.  Rather, it develops as you continue to grow as a writer.  The voice of your novel is twofold; a combination of your voice as the author and your protagonist's voice relative to the genre.  If the voice was lacking--or if it was wrong (as in, a YA that didn't have a teen voice or an MG that sounded too "old"), it was a "no" from us.

Similarly, some entries had writing that simply wasn't ready yet.  This doesn't mean the writer couldn't write, or that the story idea was bad.  It just wasn't ready.  One or two read like first novels (yes, there is a certain "first novel read"), but most of the time, when an entry fell into this category, it was writing that needed work.  (And sometimes these were the most disappointing "nos" of all--an exciting logline followed by not-there-yet writing always elicited groans.)

One thing that's different for the Baker's Dozen is the fact that Jodi and I aren't looking for specific things the way agents are.  So we've got an entire palette of genres in the slush and we get to find the best entries without being constrained by subgenres or agency bents.  Sure, it's challenging to read an entry in a genre that doesn't flip our cookies, but that's when the question, "Will someone else like this?" comes in handy.  Because if the writing is decent and the first page generally works, it doesn't matter if it's not a pet genre of either Jodi or me.  We get to say "yes" because there's a good chance one of our participating agents will like it.

And you saw them fighting last week, so we're feeling pretty good about what we put out there!

Anyway, I hope this has been at least a little helpful.  I hated reading all the "I didn't make it" comments after winning entries were announced, despite the fact that they were beautifully stated and offered congratulations to those who did make it.  I have dozens and dozens of rejections under my belt, and I don't relish being the one to hand them out.

So there it is.  I can't deny that reading so many entries in a short time was fairly exhausting.  But I also can't deny that it's a privilege to read the work of my fellow writers.  Thank you all for being good sports, and for your many kind and appreciative words for Jodi and me.

Let's do it all again next year. :-)


  1. I'm sure everything went swimmingly last week, and I offer belated (and clueless) congrats to everyone involved! I've been looking forward to this for quite a while, but when it came time, I found myself offline, chained to a NICU worrying about a baby who wasn't supposed to arrive until this coming Thursday, and when I finally got back to my Google Reader yesterday, I said, "Oh! That *was* this week, wasn't it?" In any case...this is a very helpful overview. Especially that first part about the action. After being told that something opens too slowly, the tendency is to go looking for something high-drama to use in its place. Obviously that's not necessarily the best solution, either.

  2. I suspect some of the tendency for authors dropping us into the middle of action on page 1 is due to the influence of movies. Things like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and 'Mission: Impossible' and presumably dozens (hundreds) of successful movies start with a whiz-bang action sequence. But what works for movies doesn't necessarily work for books.

    I have not participated in any of these auctions/contests - yet - but I have to say it's great that you do it. Thank you.

  3. Thanks so much for putting this post together, Authoress. It definitely helps to get some kind of feedback and lets us know which road to take when it comes to revisions.

  4. As usual, a helpful and compassionate post, Authoress.

    Thank you so much for hosting the Baker's Dozen contest and for all the support you put out there for aspiring authors. You're really a light in a very dark corner.

    Thanks to Jodi, too!

  5. It's funny, because I rewrote my whole first chapter after getting some really good feedback - and I think it would have stood a much better chance now.

    I agree that, for me, my piece just wasn't ready. I wish I could take that piece back in time to a month ago and resubmit it as it is today. ^_^ My voice was there, but the action, dialogue, conflict, and characters weren't flushed out in that opener. I assure you, the one I have now, I'm actually very proud of. ;)

    Though, if it wasn't for your contests, I probably wouldn't be still working on it for submission. :)

  6. I think sometimes the worst part of rejection is never knowing WHY. This is great that you took the time to explain. I didn't enter, but looking at this list, I can see the things I need to work on, the things I'm already doing, and move forward. I can't imagine being the one who has to hand out rejections, but you have gone a step farther and given writers a reason why. Which is very valuable. :)

  7. The rejection prompted me to take more action. After reading feedback from last year's Baker's Dozen, I found that in my opening scene, I was stopping the action with back story. Once in an action scene, and it doesn't have to be death defying, the flow needs to push forward, not take the reader out. That's what I learned. So, I changed the "explanation" of the stakes to "active worrying" of the MC. We'll see if it reads better, but at the least, I played around with the writing.
    Thank you Authoress for all the learning this blog provides.

  8. Loved your advice on action vs conflict. Thanks for the post and the insight.

  9. Can't wait for the feedback round for us "non-winners" because you're right, it's so frustrating not knowing WHY. These tips are really great amd I'm looking forward to getting feedback on my work specifically.

  10. Thank you for expressing the "why"s. I haven't yet submitted anything yet, because my manuscript just isn't ready (or finished) yet.

    But I like that you differentiated between action and conflict.

    In general, the vibe on this site is good and encouraging. However, as I read some critiques here or on other sites, some comments got a bit snarky. "Not enough action...I'm not hooked...where's the conflict...?"
    But I, as a reader was LOVING what out there. I disagree with some critiques that demand soooo much more of the writer, where I would certainly read on. I wonder if somewhere in all the advice on "250 first words" we got lost in what is expected. I'm all for raising the bar, as long as we, the unpublished critiquers, aren't just snarking at someone else's writing and placing the bar so high that not even an Olympian high jumper could make it over.
    I love this opportunity that you are providing, Authoress. I just wonder sometimes at those who are offering up extra critical critiques. My little advice to all those who submitted...take it all with a grain of salt and don't rub it in your wounds. For you are all quite amazing.

  11. I agree with the conflict between action and conflict. You have to love the character first. For me one of the most classic beginnings is the Daphne Du Maurier REBECCA.
    Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay again.

    Intrigued is what this sentence would do for me. I'd ask What, why and want to know more. What happened at Manderlay. Why is this significant.

    But it starts at some kind of subtle action.

    I'm posting this anonymous but I'm Zara Penney - lazy ZP because I'd have to log in. I've been AWOL but my quote of the day today was roughly...

    I'd like to be a procrastinator, but it takes me a while to try it.

  12. Hello Zara Penney -- I was wondering where you'd gone! :)

  13. This is so interesting! It's always good to know why people say yes and why they say no. Thank you so much for your piece about conflict vs action. I have so many people saying that the story has to start with a bang, and that's not always the case. Thanks for the insight!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  14. Authoress, it's been amazing to watch the bidding and the critiques. You and your team have given unagented writers an incredible opportunity. But even though I love the auction, I have some questions about it. Note: this does *not* mean I love this community any less!

    I write adult fantasy, and I have no current interest in writing YA. After a few other adult spec-fiction writers shared their thoughts off-board with me, I decided to research whether Baker's Dozen shows a YA bias. I don't know, but I wanted to be open and honest about my critique.

    It's hard to determine with only two auctions behind us. I compared bids to the 60 winning entries, in only the spec fiction categories: science-fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, paranormal mystery, paranormal thriller, urban fantasy, dystopia, and historical fantasy. Between Adult and YA categories, I learned that the Adult category had 2 agent requests in spec fiction. The YA category had 12.

    When I compared the bids-to-entries in the 2010 auction, I saw the Adult spec fiction entries garnered 4 bid requests, while the YA entries got 10. There were 41 total entries.

    I know, we can't account for the quality of individual entries, or each agent's tastes. I don't know if the statistical spread is an accident or an artifact of market preference for YA. Though there appears to be an edge for YA writers, I still think the auction is a valuable experience for anyone querying a novel, regardless of genre.

    I know the YA market is booming, and it makes sense to focus on

  15. Filigree, yeah, I noticed the same thing once the agents were announced. Since I write adult fantasy, I wasn't expecting any bids. Nor did I get any, so I guess it went as expected. ^_^ Which is kinda cool in a sad sorta way.

    But, hey, a third of the entries got no bids. That's 12 from adult portion and in 8 the MG/YA section who are all in the same boat.
    And, no doubt, they're all picking through the feedback to see how they can polish their work just that little bit more. ^_^

  16. Sorry about the truncated comment, folks.

    I guess it's important to know who the Baker's Dozen agents will be, before we writers jump into the entry frenzy. That way we can look at agent guidelines and make an educated guess about our genre's chances.

    It will be interesting to see what happens next year.

  17. Thank you so much for this. Not only is it helpful to entrants of the contest, it helps those of us who are currently revising.

    I read all of the entries, sadly too late to make any effective critiques that hadn't already been said. I'm so looking forward to hosting some of the others in January.

  18. Filigree -- Yes, what you said at the end is key: I post the participating agents so everyone can research them BEFORE entering. I have no control over who agrees to participate and who does not, and while I do invite a broad spectrum of agents, I naturally have more contacts in the YA/MG world.

    Many of these, however, do represent both adult and YA/MG.

    So it's not a bias so much as it is a reflection of whoever says "yes" each year. My invitation list continues to grow, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

    And I do accept more YA/MG entries because it's reflective of the blog readership. I received more than twice as many YA/MG entries as adult, and that's generally the case with everything I run here. Which is probably reflective of the YA/MG glut in general--nothing I can do about that! (Except add to it, of course, with my own writing; LOL!)

  19. This is a great post - thanks - I'd like to get my hands on some of this stuff!

  20. Authoress, even in your quest to give authors a chance to have a forum, you find time to dole out advice that are true gems and make us all go back and rethink our own work. You are the most helpful person. Thank you.