7 Reasons Editors (Might) Toss a Submission (Plus Prompt)

Every so often, us folks at Writer’s Digest throw our doors open for intensives (think blitzkrieg weekend conferences). Writers come from around the U.S. to check out the events, which include craft and career sessions, a mixer for writers and editors, and perhaps the key perk for attendees, a critique of the first 50 pages of their books. (Alongside, of course, the experience of Cincinnati’s overly sweet, eyebrow-raising signature chili.)

Now, while any critique is subjective, we try to give each writer a good sense of whether or not the first chunk of his/her book is ready to be submitted to an agent or editor. With the next intensive coming up this weekend, I’ve been looking over notes from the last few, and have pooled a small list of hang-ups from the “Why I Stop Reading” panels where the editors discuss, well, why publishing reps might have stopped reading.

Why might they have given up?

•    The information dump. Avoid introducing an unmanageable load of characters, or unloading an epic amount of backstory. Rather than offering a summary, delve deeper into moments and let scenes breathe. Also, be wary of flashbacks too early in a piece.

•    “Show, Don’t Tell.” While it’s often overused, the familiar writing adage can still ring true. Instead of rehashing how a character feels, frame them in action and let us discover it for ourselves.

•    The usual suspects: Waking to an alarm clock; starting with the weather; revealing that your first scene was only a dream; providing overly thorough physical descriptions, clichés or wild grammar; fluctuating tense and point of view.

•    A surplus of jargon early on. Be it scientific or technical, consider trimming it to free your prose and bring the people in the scene to the forefront.

•    False starts. Should the piece have begun 30 pages in, when it took on a life of its own and hit its groove? To give the early pages the life found later in the manuscript, perhaps cut extraneous material or reincorporate it later. 

•    The need for side action/any action. If you’re stuck in long passages of dialogue or backstory and are losing a sense of life in the piece, add side action. Sometimes it takes a familiar dog growling nearby, a barroom brawl, a proverbial dollar bill dangling out of the pocket of a thief who has bumped into an old acquaintance while fleeing a crime, etc., to frame chunks of dialogue/story in a new way.

•    A surplus of adjectives and adverbs. (Yeah, I know, I’m guilty of it on a daily basis. But still.)

If you have a free weekend and are looking to get out of town, consider trekking to Cincinnati for the intensive. They’re fun, and a great literary escape from the holiday chaos. This weekend’s event is set to include presentations on landing literary agents, succeeding as a writer in a transformational time, using social networks to further your career, and more. If you come, bring your manuscript—and consider bringing some of your own chili in case you don’t like ours.

Update: Courtesy of WD’s publisher, use code “Eetweet” to save $25 off registration.

Lowering the Ears

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

It started out as a haircut, but something happened.

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4 thoughts on “7 Reasons Editors (Might) Toss a Submission (Plus Prompt)

  1. Dee Longfellow

    It started out as a haircut, but something happened.

    "How’s it going?" said my hairdresser as I sank into the chair.
    "Well, as of right now, I have no place to live!" was my reply.
    My house had sold but after trekking hither and yon, looking at house after house, I had not a nibble on a place to launch my post-divorce life.
    "Well, for what it’s worth, I know a realtor," she offered.
    "Oh, I’ve been working with somebody, I really don’t think I should switch… or should I? Hmmmmm…"
    "Your hair is thinning."
    "WHAT?" I had always enjoyed my Dad’s thick glorious hair.
    "It’s just stress, it’s common," she assured me. "It’ll come back."
    That night, I pulled my fingers through it in front of the mirror — she was right.
    The next day she called with her realtor friend’s name. He was currently showing a condo located in the affordable suburb just north of the wealthy one in which my ex and I had raised his two kids — my stepkids.
    "These places are usually snatched up within a week," he said when we met at the building the next day. "In fact, this one was sold, but their financing fell through. You’re lucky it’s available."
    It was ideal and I loved it, two bedroom, two baths, a west view to enjoy the sunsets, and watch the planes come in to land at the nearby airport.
    The next few weeks passed in a whirlwind of papers to sign, boxes to pack, garbage to dump, temporary housing to arrange. I moved out November 17. Moved in December 1. Divorce court January 7. The divorce was final February 3.
    It wasn’t until spring when I was all settled, sitting out on my balcony watching the planes lined up in position to come in for a landing, that my fingers noticed my nice thick hair had come back again. Then it hit me — I, too, had landed! I was here. It was over. I positively loved my new condo and everything about the new community — after having no place at all to live.
    And to think — it started out as a haircut. But something happened.

    This is a true story.

    Dee Longfellow

  2. Mark James

    Martha: I loved this, "Nothing. Honestly, Tam. Nothing." Uh, huh, step away from the scissors . . .

    Zac, this started out as a story about a haircut . . . but something happened.

    “A haircut on the beach?” I dug a little deeper. “No.”

    “How come?”

    “Don’t want sand in my hair. Get another knife.”

    “What’s wrong with that one?”

    I looked up at her, wiped sweat from my face. “Just get one.”

    “You always talk to me like I’m a kid.”

    “You are a kid. Go on.”

    Waiting for her, digging out the metal box, I kept my eyes on the deserted city street. Noon was a bad time to be out in the open.

    “I can’t find a big one,” Nikki said from the back seat of the wreck.

    “Forget it. We have to go.”

    She was beside me as fast as her legs would carry her. “You saw something?”

    “Not yet.”

    Nikki looked at the metal box in my hand. “Does it work?”

    Shadows formed in doorways. I didn’t want her seeing them. “How about a haircut on the roof?”


    “How come?”

    “Will you let me cut your hair on the beach?”

    I steered her away from eyes in dark doorways. “Deal. I get the beach. You get the roof.”

    “They’re watching us aren’t they?”

    “Keep moving.” I wasn’t sure if we’d make it. “How high can you jump?”

    “Higher than you.”

    “I mean it.”

    “I don’t know. Up to where we live.”

    Good enough. It had to be. “When I say, run to the building, jump up to the first balcony, then come down and let me in.”

    “But they’ll – -”

    “Not if you’re fast. Go.”

    She got off to a slow start. I didn’t lose track of her for almost three steps, then she was gone, moving too fast for me to see.

    One in a million Wakers came back like Nikki, new and improved. The rest, well . . . good enough for government work.

    The Quickening, the last flu vaccine to come out of the CDC, worked better than any scientist’s wild fantasy of eternal youth. People lined up all over the world, got the vaccine, got the flu, and got dead.

    But what the flu took away, the Quickening gave back. By the time they stopped giving the vaccine, Wakers were all over, chowing down on friends and family.

    A man shambled out of a doorway up ahead. He blocked the sidewalk. “Money.”

    I wasn’t sure why Wakers said the same thing over and over. I’d started thinking it was the last word they said before they died. “Back up big guy, or being dead won’t be the worst thing that ever happened to you.”

    I saw the door to our building open a crack. She peeked out. I pressed the button on the box, shaded my eyes from the balloon of silver that flew out between me and the Waker. He fell back, blind and screaming.

    I flicked the Reflector off and ran.

    Nikki flung the door open. I dived in, pulled it shut behind me. We lived in the first all glass building ever built. It wasn’t silver, but it was close enough.

    “I win,” she said. “Haircut on the beach.”

  3. Martha W

    Zac – Talking about false starts: Well, *cough, cough* one of my other ms’s had this prologue… *blushing*… yeah, it’s gone now. LOL!

    Mark – Tag. Loved your last one… can’t wait to see what you did with this one!


    I’m not quite sure what I was thinking. Maybe it was the fact it would be cheap. Maybe it was because it was my niece. Who really knows why insanity strikes at the most inopportune times. All I knew was it started out as a haircut.

    But something happened.

    For once my son, who is all of four years old, was sitting still. He glanced around from time to time, trying to see the weird lady he said. I thought about correcting his outspokenness, but he was right. She was weird.

    Tammy was confident she could cut Ollie’s hair and it would look like a seasoned hairdresser had cut it. That’s where my trouble started. I believed her.

    "Mommy?" My son’s soft voice cut through the noise of the shop.
    I turned immediately. "Yes?"

    "It’s nothing." Tammy cut across Ollie before he could answer.

    My eyebrows lifted as I moved closer to see what was going on. "Ollie? Are you okay?"

    "Yeah, but this side looks weird." He shrugged one shoulder to indicate the one he meant.

    Again, Tammy interjected, "Honestly, Em, it’s nothing."

    Alarmed now, I scooted around them to stop short at the sight before me. A very large bald spot stared back from the side of Ollie’s head. His beautiful blond hair – missing.

    I turned widened eyes to my niece, speaking slowly, trying to calm myself down enough to not do her any damage. "How-" I cleared my throat thinking that would help. "How did that happen?"

    Tears gathered in Tammy’s eyes. "That stupid school bus blared its horn just as it passed by the door… it scared me." Her lip quivered and she gathered her mouth in a pout.

    I simply stared at her. What could I say?

    She cocked at hip and glared back at me. "What do you want me to do?"

    This time both eyebrows shot up. "Nothing. Honestly, Tam. Nothing." I said as I reached for Ollie. "C’mon baby, time to go find a real stylist."

    He latched on to me, sending a glare of his own at his favorite cousin. "Yeah, like the ones at Wal-mart!"


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