My agent will reject your manuscript if she sees these two things.
LY’s will dig the grave. Lazy attributions will make the kill.
I have a talented young nephew who cranks out novels. He polishes his query letters and almost always gets a request for pages.
And he’s always rejected, sometimes within minutes of sending the pages.
He asked me to ask my agent to read his pages and tell him why. “Tell her to be honest.”
I look at the pages. I could tell him why, but he doesn’t want my opinion. He wants to hear it from an agent.
So I ask. My agent reads a few sentences. “Reject.”
She tells me why.
She gets 50–100 email queries a day, an impossible number. She has to winnow, and she does, first by subject line (“Hi! I’m a great writer!”) next by the quality and professionalism of the query letter. Anyone who says “I’ve written a best-seller” is toast. Assuming everything else is okay, she’ll ask for the first 10 pages.
And 90% don’t make it past the first page for two big reasons:
- Lazy attributions.
An attribution indicates who is speaking. The only attribution that should be used is SAID. Example:
He said. She said.
He whispered. She screamed.
The attribution SAID should disappear into the writing. Yes, excessive use of SAID — as in every line — sometimes clogs the flow. New writers try to solve the problem by varying the attributions, using “shouted,” “screamed,” etc.
My agent calls that a lazy attribution.
Why? Because it’s lazy writing. A well-crafted sentence shows, rather than tells.
“It’s hard to craft a good sentence.” She shrugged. “That’s why I call it lazy attributions. It’s the work that has to be done in the edit process. If a writer can’t do it before they send their work to me, I don’t want to work with them. I don’t need a lazy writer, or a writer I have to argue every attribution or LY.”
And speaking of LY?
LY’s are the kiss of death, especially when coupled with a lazy attribution. Example:
He whispered softly. She shouted loudly.
Repeat: LY’s will kill your manuscript, especially when coupled with lazy attributions.
My agent’s tips:
First mass edit: Search and remove all words ending with LY.
Second mass edit: Change all lazy attributions to SAID.
Then: Ask yourself, sentence by sentence: “Is the attribution slowing down the conversation? Is there a way to eliminate SAID altogether in this sentence?”
Yes. Show who’s doing the speaking, don’t tell. Example:
“I hate you.” She stabbed him 104 times. “You lie.”
You don’t have to write: “I hate you, she shouted angrily.”
You’ve shown she’s angry. The character’s action (104 stabs) tells you.
— Or, If it’s a long convo between two people, establish who they are, and eliminate SAID altogether. Example:
Sarah’s tears left tracks in her powdered cheek blush. “You’re leaving me?”
“Yes.” Dave threw underwear into a garbage bag. “I’m leaving.”
“You know why.”
“Tell me.” She grabbed his arm. “Now.”
He shook off her hand. “Stop it.” He held up the half-full garbage bag. “Want to know why? Because you keep buying cheap-ass garbage bags. It’s a waste of money. Look at this. I’m going to have to use two bags to pack my clothes.”
Sarah fell to her knees. “I’ll change. I promise.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell that to the garbage men. I’m outta here.”
My agent summed it up: “If I see these two mistakes, I know from 40 years of experience that this writer is lazy. He hasn’t done the heavy lifting of editing. When there are other manuscripts equally brilliant, but polished? I’ll go with the writer who’s taken the time to edit.”
What if you miss the great American novel?
“I want a riveting plot, a great concept, unforgettable characters. A story I can’t put down. But I can’t even start the story if I have to wade through crap.”
I tell this to my nephew. “Your first page has three no-no’s: “Whispered softly.” “Raged furiously.” “Roared loudly.”
Then: “It’s obvious that she’s the wrong agent for my work. I’m looking for an agent who will see potential through the petty details. Besides, a good agent takes care of all of that stuff.”
The convo deteriorated.
“I’ll do this my way,” he said. And hung up.
Good luck with that.
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