The Grueling Process of Submission (Part One): Hook, Proper Grammar, and To Be Verbs

Sunday, October 09, 2016
Recently, I had a friend, David Kirkland, who is an editor of a small press, write and suggest a series of blog posts on mistakes he sees repeated in western, sci fi and fantasy submissions. As I read the list, I thought about the WOW! novel class I teach and the Summer 2016 Flash Fiction contest I will finish judging today and agreed with his points. These mistakes can make readers--who at the submission point are agents and editors--cringe.

I decided in October, before we get to NaNoWriMO and the craziness of writing 50,000 words in a month, I would cover the most important of these in a three-part series about submitting your manuscript. The following post is not just for genre writers, but for any fiction writers, and I would include memoir writers, too.

So, let's go.

1. Grammar and story must be spot on! David said, "Take your first three pages and ask: 'Would an agent be interested enough to ask for more?' This really has two aspects: Will it be viewed as polished work? Is the story engaging?"

This may seem like a no-brainer, but he's right. The beginning of your novel is the hardest to write. It's true that you need to turn in a manuscript that is grammatically correct. If grammar and you don't get along, then hire someone to help or ask a very good friend because it is time consuming. One error and a terrific manuscript will most likely NOT equal an automatic rejection. But trust me, agents, editors, and judges are looking for reasons to reject your manuscript and give someone else first prize.

As for: is the story engaging? Hopefully, you believe it is, or you wouldn't have taken the time to write it. But you need to find objective readers who will tell you the truth. This means you need a critique group, beta readers, or a developmental editor. Most of the time, writers fail to begin the story where they need to because they really want to make sure readers understand the characters and setting. Detach yourself from your beautiful beginning, and start the story just before the inciting incident, which changes the main character's life forever and propels him into the problem. 

Many people will tell you that you need a hook--something to get agents and editors excited about your work. Think of the books you like and consider their hook, which lures you in from the beginning. Not all books do it in the first pages, but when you are a debut author, getting that hook in there is important. 

Take for example the first paragraph of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My
fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only
the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had
bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she
did. This is the day of the reaping.

Immediately, we know there is a narrator with a sister named Prim who must be scared about something, and this is the dreaded day of the reaping. The hook is that readers will ask themselves: What is the reaping? Why is Prim scared? 

David said, "Agents work on a commission, and so have to be selective and will expect it [your manuscript] to pass both tests [grammar and hook/story]."

2. "To be" verbs and passive voice: The other thing David mentioned, which I also see a lot of, is using forms of "to be" (i.e., is, was, am, are) instead of action verbs. This can often lead to passive voice or awkward sentence structure and wordiness. Many times when writers use a "to be" verb, they also use a weak action verb with an -ing and an adverb, which Stephen King says should be used on a rare occasion. Let me give you an example, instead of blabbering on about this point:

Amanda was walking slowly across the yard because she was avoiding talking to  her father. 

Amanda drifted through the yard to avoid a talk with her father.

(Maybe you have an even better way to fix it! We would love to see that in the comments below.)

Here's an example of passive voice, which should rarely be used and only when you do it on purpose:

Michael's boat was being scrubbed for the big race by the crew. 

Who is scrubbing? The crew! So, to make this active, they should come first.

The crew scrubbed Michael's boat in preparation for the big race. 

I'm not saying don't ever use a "to be" verb, especially in dialogue. When speaking, we use them all the time. What I am saying is watch out for overuse and for annoying adverbs and passive voice that can sneak in when you do. David suggests using a highlighter to mark these verbs in your submission pages, and decide if a stronger verb could do the job.

Stay tuned for Part Two coming on Wednesday, October 19.

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, teacher, and published author, living in St. Louis, MO. She blogs on a regular basis about being a single mom and writing at, where you can also find a list of her children's books. She teaches novel writing for WOW!, and you can find her class here

photo above by Guudmorning! on


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Thanks for this. The last one--especially--I am going to use with my students.

Margo Dill said...

Awesome! Thanks for letting me know. :)

Sheila Good said...

Excellent reminders, thanks! @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

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