Monday, May 2, 2011

The Road to Rejection is Paved With Good Intentions

I've been working on a novel for over a year now. In fact, the first draft was finished nearly a year ago. In the meantime, I've been revising. And revising. And revising.

It's been eye-opening... but sometimes painful.

Over the course of revisions I have several people read sections of it, many of whom read the first chapter. Several of these are my very talented writing group. One of those people is a published author. One of those is a critically acclaimed author and writing teacher who is my phenomenal advisor this semester at Pacific University. Everyone has seemed to indicate I've got that first chapter down.

Then, this weekend, I was browsing a website of a major publisher. Perhaps I should mention I was browsing this website because I had just read a book published by them and was certain they could not have been a reputable publisher because this book was SO poorly written. Agonizingly poorly. And yet - turns out the publisher is a real, valid, traditional publisher with a pretty big name in the industry.

Anyhoo - on that website there were submission guidelines and helpful hints for writers, one of the top of which was this:

DO start your story with action or dialogue; DO NOT start with your character driving in a car back into town musing over why they left and why they're coming back.


Do you know how my book starts? A girl driving back into her hometown.


So now, even though I've had so many people tell me this first chapter is a great opening and develops the character well and sets up the tension nearly immediately, I feel my stomach bunching up.

If I send the opening pages for submission, will it automatically get rejected because it starts this way? Not that I would ever send it to that publisher above, but just the fact that they mention this as their top pet-peeve and thing NOT to do in a submission, am I setting myself up for failure?

I'm just not sure I have the heart to go back now and rewrite that first chapter yet again. At least not right now. I'm going to keep plowing ahead and finish this eighth or ninth set of revisions, and then maybe I'll have the courage to re-evaluate. But I don't feel better knowing I did the one thing they say not to do.

If I am STILL doing all the wrong things, am I hopeless??


  1. STOP. The moment you let someone's arbitrary rule outrank your own heart is the moment you declare allegiance to mediocrity.

    You can't start a story with your character driving in a car back into town, musing over why they left and why they're coming back? Since when? Any publisher that would single out so specific a scenario is one I would avoid.

    The most common "rule" is to not open a story with the weather. Yet if you do so brilliantly, like no one ever has before, screw everyone who tells you not to.

  2. I've read this rule too but so many of the published books I read start differently. So...

  3. I know what you try to follow all the rules and do it all the right way...and then something like this. Part of me wants to say not to rewrite...follow your gut. But the other part knows how important the first page, the first paragraph, the first line is.

    Good luck! I wish I had more to offer you!!

  4. Ignore the rules, you'll go mad if you try to follow them all. If you've already got people happy with the chapter the way it is then stick to it.
    Re-edited vsn of The Arrival now up and just .99c for May ONLY

  5. I'm sure everybody THINKS they're the exception.

    I think you actually are.

    Also: what Stephen Parrish said!

  6. Heidi, you are SO not hopeless!! You are a gifted writer who has already successfully published one amazing book (which I recommend to people every chance I get!) and you've had qualified people, whose opinion you respect, give you feedback on this first chapter. I say, stick with what you've got! You're doing it RIGHT.

    On another note, I'm working my agonizing way through my first round of revisions and it is taking so much longer than I thought it would. If I end up going through eight rounds, I'm gonna be a grandma by the time this baby is finished and ready to send out!

  7. Heidi,

    You are an amazing writer! If you love your first chapter, you should stick with it. I'm guessing the web designer of said publishing house was trying to be funny. If you think it is the right house for your ms, send it anyway. Chances are the editor you send it to isn't the same one who put the comment on their site.

  8. Don't let a piece of advice from one publisher make you second guess yourself. That's just one opinion and it sounds like you've had lots stating otherwise. Play the odds.

  9. What everyone else said...but let me tell you this. The reason things become cliche is because we humans are obviously relating to them in some way. Right? I have read several books where the intro is driving back to a home town...does it bother me? Nope.

    Here is what the publisher should have said. "DO NOT start with your main character driving into town UNLESS you can knock it out of the f&$^@*ing park!" Done and done.

    excuse my language...this struck a nerve.

  10. I agree with everyone else. I just submited a short story that has been CP'd many times and the comments included how they liked that the story started in the car and ended in the car. Now I think I'll be sent a rejection letter as I'm still new at this, but so often I read to do what is right for you. And just like grammar, there are exceptions to the rules.

  11. My novel starts with a girl on a train, so that's kinda like a car. :) An agent looked at it, and told me to change a few things and send it back to her, but the opening with the train wasn't one of changes she told me to make.

    I'm sure your whole first chapter isn't about her in the car right? Maybe the publisher meant that the first chapter shouldn't be only inner dialog and emotion about a character the reader has yet to feel an attachment to. The first chapter is to get the reader caught up in what's going on so they'll want to get to know the character and become attached so much that they care about her feelings and inner dialog.

    I say if beta readers are telling you that they are pulled in within the first chapter, than it has the elements needed. :)

  12. What great encouragers you all are - and with some fantastic advice. Thank you!

    I did in panic email my advisor (who I ADORE!!) and he wrote me back and basically said don't worry about it because the beginning is fine and publishers do this all the time and writers break the rules all the time, and it's okay if you do it well.

    So. Yeah. There. I'm breathing again.


  13. Unless this is the only publisher you want to see your work, don't worry about it. Trust your instincts, and the feedback you got, and move on.

  14. There's this whole long list of things you shouldn't open with, but if it works in your story, USE it anyway :D
    I think the praise you've gotten outweighs the rest of it. You can ALWAYS break rules (if you do it well) and that doesn't even qualify as a rule...