The First 50 Pages – Part 1 – Staying out of the slush pile

Submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher is a scary event.  By the time all is said and done, your hair and your fingernails may be gone, your nerves will be shattered and you may suffer from months of sleep deprivation.  Even after you hit that submit button or hand your manuscript over to the postal service, you still wonder what happens on the other end.  You wait and you wait and you wait some more.  Heh.  You thought the submission part was the worst?  Wait until the waiting begins.  Torture.  Pure torture.

So how can you ensure your submission has the best chance?  Assuming you have done your homework and have submitted your manuscript to an agent/publisher who specializes in your genre, there are several things you can do to make sure you manuscript shines as much as possible.

Today, I’m going to give you a common list of things an agent or publisher looks for to reject a manuscript.  Remember, they are busy bees and they are looking for reasons NOT to accept your work.  It is your job as a writer to make sure you don’t give them a reason to reject your MS.  Arm yourself.  Be prepared, and even if your work is rejected, remember, it is not personal.  Publishing is a business.  Learn the business and you have a better chance at succeeding.

A published author gave this list to me at a writer’s group so I apologize if don’t credit the right person for the information.  If you wrote it, please send me your info so I can credit you properly.  This list was put together by agents and publishers and gives the primary reason manuscripts are rejected within the first 50 pages…most of the time within the first 2.

  • weak first sentence; lack of engaging hook
  • starting with a dream scenario
  • passive voice
  • stale story idea
  • prologues that don’t work
  • telling instead of showing
  • point-of-view errors
  • shallow characters
  • plot with no spine
  • too many stock characters
  • lack of beats for pacing and description
  • stilted dialogue
  • clumsy fiction craftsmanship
  • inadequate descriptions of characters and settings (or details arrive too late)
  • starting the main action too soon
  • too much back story
  • too many clichés
  • going into flashbacks too early in the story
  • story starts too slow
  • too many characters introduced at one time
  • jumping to a new viewpoint character to early
  • too little conflict
  • lack of stakes or a ticking time bomb
  • mechanical and grammatical errors

If your manuscript starts with any of these, you may want to reconsider another edit before sending it off.

Hope this helps.  Can you think of anything else that may cause an agent or publisher to reject a manuscript?  Please feel free to let us in on your rejection experience if you have one and what you learned.

24 thoughts on “The First 50 Pages – Part 1 – Staying out of the slush pile

  1. This was a really great list! I don’t venture into writing much since I think all my creativity only comes in my dreams (I have the most ridiculously action packed, scifi- filled, magic- wielding dreams) which I forget about 15 minutes after waking. However, as a reader, I can wholeheartedly agree with the list. For e.g. reading a story and being told everything that a supposed symbol should mean instead of allowing me to deduce this for myself irks me to no end; typographical errors play with my mind; being able to predict where the writer is going too soon in the book decreases the enjoyment I was looking forward to; characters who have alot to share but are either too blatantly revealed to the reader or not enough is revealed to add the necessary spice to the story makes me feel that I’ve missed out on prime insight; in the case of romance- too much love which takes away from the plot rather than adds to it. Since I know that writers put alot of effort into their work, I hope this helped rather than discouraged anyone. 😀


  2. Overall, this is a good list; the suggestions/guidelines make sense to anyone who’s ever read a book where these errors are ubiquitously strewn throughout.
    Now, obviously I can’t speak from an agent’s perspective, but if I’ve learned anything it’s that guidelines are just that: guidelines. Aside from editing and proofreading, nothing, where writing is concerned, is concrete. All rules, faux-pauxs, and cliches are moot in the face of strong characters and great writing.
    It is my opinion that if you focus too hard on refraining from the aforementioned no-no’s, you inadvertently relinquish your gift.


  3. I recently sent something out with a typo. I read over it (and got a couple of betas to look over it too) and none of them noticed. I sent it out, read over it once more and the typo simply GLARED at me. Maybe your writing is like a really mean person: it does everything it can to make you fail, but you love it anyway.


    1. OMGosh, that is so true! Sometimes, I think my word processor is the culprit. I ‘know’ in my heart of hearts I corrected that nasty mistake, but there it sits, glaring back at me, smiling.


  4. So many great tips here. So many things we writers have to think about. So many areas of self-doubt! So many sentences beginning with “so many!” Shame on me.


  5. This is a wonderful list. Most of everything you mention is familiar to me.

    I have been feeling shaky over my opening page, because I thought I jumped into the action too soon. When I rewrote it so that I could show more of the main character, I brought forth one of the themes of my novel, which is reality vs. fantasy. Now, the opening scene begins with my main character fantasizing/daydreaming about a stranger she keeps meeting.

    After reading your second item on the list, I’m doubting myself. Even though she isn’t dreaming (she’s awake, remembering the encounter, but building up a fantasy), I am wondering if that’s pushing the envelope too far.


    1. You might want to consider starting with an action that causes her to slip into a daydream later. Where is she? What is she doing? Does the mysterious stranger share a talisman, such as an identical necklace? Does he only appear when she’s in the market square or grocery store?

      It took a lot for me to look beyond the ‘window’ in my mind to see what was outside, but once I saw it, it was very clear. It was like a light bulb went off and I wondered why I didn’t see it before. I read lots of openings and took notes and what was evident in all of them was the author showed the character, set the stage and give a hint of what’s to come. Maybe throw in a bit of conflict (could be she didn’t feel like putting on makeup to run to the corner store and lo and behold, look who she runs into – mystery man. now she’s feeling vulnerable, naked because she doesn’t have her makeup on or look her best). Play with it a little. Good luck.


      1. Yes, yes, yes. Exactly! I think I can do that. The way the chapter opens I can’t have her in the moment meeting him, because she needs to be at her house. However, it is entirely plausible that he could have dropped an object that she picks up and can’t return to him because he disappeared too quickly.

        So to open the chapter she is holding the object, studying it, and then that leads into a daydream about him…I’ll play and see what I can come up with. Thanks for the tutoring session. 🙂


    1. I know the feeling. Thing is, you probably read that piece a gazillion times. Your betas probably skimmed over it, too. It happens…even in the big houses.


  6. Great post. I find one of the most difficult things is knowing where to start the story. In the list above, “starting the main action too soon” and “story starts too slow” are a bit at odds with each other. It can be tricky to find the right balance of not starting too early in the story but also not jumping right into it. I’m struggling with this very thing in my new WIP.


    1. Carrie, this is one thing I’ve struggled with in almost every novel I’ve written. Short stories not so much. I have re-written the beginning of my current W.I.P. at least eight times; however, after I ‘discovered’ what it meant to start the story with action, but not the main action, I have an opening that really, really works. Even my beta readers agree.

      I understand why the agents don’t want you to start with the main action too soon: the reader doesn’t have a chance to learn the characters or the setting. You also don’t want your story to start with your MC waking up, having breakfast, taking a bath. A good opening action scene would be something like your MC in the bathroom brushing his teeth when he hears breaking news on the tv of a United Airways flight 3288 out of Seattle crashing into a hillside. He rushes into his room, toothpaste foaming in his mouth, and looks at his parents’ itinerary. 3288 was their flight.

      Now this may not be the main ‘action’ of the story, but there is action. We get to see our MC, we know he’s into hygiene, and he was probably planning on meeting his parents at the airport. We can also see and feel the hollowness he must feel without being told he feels it.

      the story could go a few directions from here. His parents were on the plane but they survived, they never made the plane, or they were on the plane and died. The reader is invested. They want to read on to find out which one happened. Throw in that this is the 8th flight in the last 4 days that has crashed in the same area, now you have a look into what the rest of the story may be about. Make your MC a paranormal investigator or a medium that works for the FBI, you’ve set the theme, and the story is now personal. Great thing…all of this can be established within the first 2 pages.

      Finding this happy medium is difficult but once you find it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t see it all along. At least that’s what happened with me. Good luck with sorting it all out and don’t forget to bounce your ideas off your beta readers.


      1. Great example to help clarify things. I’m going to flag this page so I can refer back to your comment if need be. And I’m glad you found an opening that works for you. I’m sure it was a relief once in place. 🙂


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