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Learning From Vanity Circus

From: Michelle G.
Sent on: Friday, July 6, 2012 11:03 AM

Chapter 2

Why We Rejected “Shattered Lives” Part 10 … Or Rejection Hurts Both of Us

The Guru has shattered the shackles on my feet, and has set me free.” ~ Sir Guru Ganth Sahib


Michelle Gamble-Risley, CEO, 3L Publishing (

You’re amped up and finished with what you genuinely believe is going to be a best-selling masterpiece sure to receive rave reviews in the New York Times. The only hesitation is you’re a little uncertain about chapter one, “Hey it’s not my best chapter in the book,” you will eventually say to your prospective publisher should you be blessed enough to get him or her on the phone. Want to know what the acquisition manager or reader thinks but probably won’t say either on the phone or in writing, “What! Are you crazy?”

Smart Girls

Carrie: What? Now? What about last night, all those concerns?

Big: Fuck it. You'll need material for the sequel. ~ Sex and the City

Rule number one when submitting a manuscript always make chapter one the very best chapter in the book not the weakest. Why? Because the reader won’t get past page one or even the end of the first chapter if it’s poorly written, weak, boring or uninteresting. All authors absolutely must understand that publishers receive literally hundreds of thousands of manuscripts a year. You do not want your first impression to be your weakest work. It may even sound preposterous to many writers that anyone would dare to make such a ridiculous mistake; but you would be absolutely stunned how many authors “confess” that they feel chapter one is not their strongest chapter.

So the real deal (because we’re always honest) you must remember when you pursue either traditional publishing or the New Publishing model, you cannot submit weak work. Publishers receive so many manuscripts and have so little time your manuscript won’t make it past page one much less the last page of the chapter if the reader immediately senses yet another literary mess or “snooze-fest” coming their way. Readers may only spend a fraction of each day actually reading submissions. These days, readers are pulled in so many different directions and play so many roles in the company that an exercise in what turns into a painful experience of reading yet another horrible manuscript becomes torturous. When the reader even glances at the first paragraph and senses a dud their mind tunes out … have to pick up the groceries, don’t forget to do the laundry … anything to distract them from yet another horrible book. You have to almost feel sorry for the reader responsible for sifting through a pile of junk as a part of their jobs – but then the really fantastic part comes when they finally stumble on that one really amazing fiction or non-fiction book. The one that they think: “Wow! I actually get paid to read this stuff.”

We Do Judge a Book by Its Title

So what can you do as an author to prevent the reader from heavily sighing at the first sight, say, of your title? Number one, your title must rock, be original, catch their attention (in a good way); and convey a message of hope, intrigue, happiness or mystery. Your title should not embarrass the book buyer (e.g., 10 Ways to Commit Incest); deter the book buyer by not making them want to identify with the title that it is something they’re interested in (e.g., I am Old and Ugly! How About You?); or come across as melodramatic drivel (e.g., Daisy’s Dying Wish to Fall In Love with Prince Charming and Have Twins).

In 2009, 3L Publishing received a half-dozen manuscripts with the melodramatic title “Shattered Lives.” First, had we not received so many “Shattered Lives,” we might have shrugged off the title as perhaps just negative and melodramatic. Yet by the fourth book with that awful title we began to not only turn it into a literary inside joke, but then wondered why? Why does anyone think that is a provocative and interesting title? It didn’t make us feel hopeful, intrigued, happy or curious. It did make the writing immediately suspect as poorly written, because this now very unoriginal title graced the cover of six seemingly bad manuscripts that we had no interest in reading.

So your title creates the all-important first impression of your book. The importance of a catchy and interesting title plays just as important role in the impression left by the first chapter. A hokey or just silly title can repel the reader and actually discourage them from cracking open page one. Please realize a significant difference exists between clever and creative titles and inane and stupid titles that make the reader groan. A clever title will provoke the reader to wonder: “Hmm … what could this be trying to say or suggest?” Even with this book, Vanity Circus is a clever metaphor for the chaos and craziness of the publishing and writing worlds. The reader is at once intrigued by its uniqueness and puzzled by its meaning yet between the two reactions it promises to lure the reader into at least reading the back cover copy versus quickly hitting the delete button or tossing the book back on the shelf.

Also, please don’t fall prey to the idea that “sex sells,” therefore I will make my title sexy or dirty or pornographic. Reader demographics show that woman purchase the majority of books. You know that most women do not openly go out and purchase a copy of Playgirl. In fact, you also know that Playgirl magazine sales do not rival Playboy magazine sales. What does this tell you? It tells you that the majority of your reading audience (women) – the segment likely to make your book a best seller – will have little or no interest in purchasing a book titled, “Eat me! Ten Ways to Give and Receive Oral Pleasure.”

Excuse Me! So Sorry, but Chapter One Sucks!

Now that we’ve given you the down low on the title, let’s move back to a discussion about chapter one. Some people find it difficult to write a strong chapter one while other writers find it challenging to write a strong ending. If you find chapter one your nemesis then it should move you to pay extra special attention to chapter one. Why? Because most likely your book will not be rejected based on a weak ending, but it will most certainly find its way to the “no” pile based on a weak opening.

Smart Girls

“For those doubters, do this simple routine: take 10 pennies – count 'em one at a time. You'll note that you don't start with zero when counting that first penny. When you get to 10, you're ready for 10 more.

This year of 2010, is our No. 10 penny, or, the "last year" of the first decade.” ~ Morrow: Now Let’s Get Some Pennies Out and Count to 10

Evaluations of chapter one fall under what we call “the rule of 10.” No, it’s not some scientific rule discovered by Einstein or apparently the rule to determine the beginning or the end of the decade. The rule of 10 suggests that most readers don’t read past page 10 to decide whether or not your manuscript will pass go to the next level of evaluation. In a traditional publishing house this usually involves the reader giving your sample chapter a positive evaluation and pushing it up the line to the next level of approval, which is usually an acquisitions manager followed by a recommendation up to the editor in chief who has the almighty power to green light the project and offer you a contract. Remember, (and we’ll get to this later) new and mid-level authors don’t receive advances anymore. The New Publishing model vets the manuscript in much the same way, so if you were hoping the new model might be your salvation, umm, no.

So the rule of 10 requires that your writing, concept, story or premise be so strong, so interesting that you move through the chain of command and toward a “yes.” Truth in sales time here: Most readers really apply the rule of one. Any major blunders or obvious faux pas exposed on page one will send your manuscript packing and back through the Ether with a big, fat no way. I know you want to think the best of the reader. “Oh, come on they have to go past page one, right?” Nope! Readers are busy, busy folks and can smell a stinky manuscript often by the first sentence. And we know this may sound unimaginable, but some writers actually pull the biggest blunder possible. They tell the whole story in the first line. No kidding true story. We had a beginning author submit a manuscript that said in the very first sentence: I die at the end. Not good all my writer friends. Not good. No intrigue here. I know that quickly that my hero kicks off by the end. What fun is that?

Chapter one from beginning to end shows the reader some critical information about your writing and story-telling abilities. That aforementioned first sentence should not reveal your story’s end. In fact, it should have very little to do with how it ends. If the book you’re submitting is a work of non-fiction then the first chapter should set up the sequential run of the book in an almost documentary style. What does that mean? Your non-fiction table of contents should be set up in a kind of building-blocks style. Each chapter builds and lends to the other. It makes sense. A non-fiction book usually sets up its thesis or premise and then the supporting chapters provide the development and explanation of the thesis or premise – and guide the reader through something to essentially persuade or sway them to understanding, agreeing or acknowledging what you wrote makes sense.

On the other hand, chapter one in a piece of fiction establishes the essential framework for the story. It introduces the hero or protagonist. It provides the essence of the story; establishes the setting; and plants the seed of the plot. It may or may not introduce all of the players in the story; but at the very least it provides the launch pad for the story. It doesn’t move so rapidly into the story as to not develop these essentials described above. It begins a slow build of all elements; fully explains motivation and character; and with supreme giftedness starts to gently pull the reader through the story.

A huge, huge mistake will often take root in chapter one. We call this the “impatient writer syndrome.” The impatient writer so eager to tell his or her story will hurl the characters into place. Take no time to build and develop them. And within pages the impatient writer expects the reader to fully understand each and every character. This problem then gets exacerbated by dialog plagued by a two-pronged dilemma: dialog for each character sounds identical and the dialog is bad.

Smart Girls

“Now Daisy Duke why ain’t you’s sitting the way you’s should?”

Sir Drakeley’s butler enters the ornate room and stops.

“Sir, can I get you another bottle of vodka?”

“No, Daisy Duke ain’t sittin’ like she should.”

“Yes, sir I see.”

“Now you’s make her sit now, would ya.”

“Yes, sir you’re the master of the house.”

The butler sets down the tray and tries to force the Great Dane to sit. The dog stands firm.

The dialog itself can be very revealing of a poorly written manuscript. Dialog plays an artful part in great literature. It needs to sound natural and most importantly appropriate to the demographic of the character and time period. As mentioned earlier, bad dialog can be compared to really bad food – it tastes and smells bad; therefore, I won’t eat it. Bad dialog that sounds hokey, contrived or cliché grates on the reader’s inner ear. It destroys suspension of disbelief. And just makes a potentially great story one that the reader easily passes on.

Bad dialog can be bad for many reasons, but the key reason may not stand out to the writer. The most obvious is stilted dialog inappropriate to the age group or time period of the characters. In other words a 30-year-old woman in 1880 does not talk the same way as 12-year-old boys in 1970. Each character will have expressions and idioms unique to the cadence and inflection of their voices (as written). It’s very difficult to illustrate really bad dialog; yet bad dialog can be the first in a series of disastrous red flags that kill your chance of being published. Before you even consider chapter one as finished, read your dialog aloud with some friends. We like to call the hokey dialog the part where you “grimace” because you just heard how awful what you wrote sounds.

Examples of dialog:

Bad: Joe, a 60-year-old grandfather, says, “Dude! Let’s catch a ride in my fucking truck. Cool dude.”

Good: Joe, a 60-year-old grandfather, says, “Hey! I’ve got errands. Hop in my truck. Let’s go.”

You see while the writing itself isn’t bad, the age-appropriate response of a 60-year-old saying an expression commonly used by 20-year-old men sounds odd and inappropriate. You have Grandpa sounding like a surfer dude who wants to drive his “fucking truck.” How many surfer grandfathers do you know? We’ll bet on the side of not many. How does the reader react? “This writer doesn’t know what she is doing.” And if that idiotic dialog happens to be say on page one? Uh-oh! Here goes the “no” pile.

The Grammar Police

Now follow this horrible dialog up with the next faux pas: poor writing and weak grammar and you’ve got a real winner, winner chicken dinner! The weak writing part is almost like throwing chum to a swarm of hungry sharks. Our joke in the office is we call some readers “grammar police.” The grammar police, readers with degrees in English, love proper grammar – and they just adore telling you when you goof up your grammar, syntax or style. Oh, the grammar police are the snarkiest people. We personally try to avoid putting on our badge and just don’t pass weak writers through the process without encouraging them to purchase editing services. None the less, traditional publishers don’t offer editorial services so all those readers with an English degree and eager to use it, will be turned off by your grammatical mistakes. In fact, if grammar isn’t your forte, we strongly encourage you to hire a professional editor before you send your manuscript off for inspection. The grammar police won’t act sympathetic to your misspelled words when you do have spell- and grammar checks on your word processor. The grammar police will actually see it as a sign of disrespect. So, we recommend you clean up your work before you submit it anywhere.

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