I attended a Writers’ Workshop and Seminar a couple of years ago. I’ve found, since then, that this same workshop travels around the country in much the same design and execution, offering new writers insight into publishing, agents’ requirements, the query process, etc. I learned a lot. A lot. The speaker shared professional tips about traditional versus self-publishing, what should ring an alarm bell in your brain in a contract, and how to do your homework before approaching an agent.
One of the most popular parts of the workshop was something called, “Writers’ Got Talent,” a parody of the television genre where upcoming performers try to attract a following – and enough votes – to get a contract, to become a star. Instead of Simon Cowell and Heidi Klum, the judges are represented by actual agents and the writers are encouraged to submit the first page of their finished novel as their “audition piece.”
As the emcee reads the first page, the blood, sweat, and tears of the author still sticky along the edges; the agents listen, raising a hand (instead of hitting a button that emits a rude blart and lights up a red X over their heads) when they figure they’d stop reading and throw the first page away.
What are the usual reasons for these summary rejections? That is the question. That is what a writer wants to know. What we desperately want to know. Why did you discard this story before you’d finished the first few paragraphs? How could you already tell that it wasn’t going to be any good?
Looking around the room, you could see the writers leaning forward, chewing their nails, making hurried notes. They all knew about ‘hooks,’ they’d all done their homework. They’d polished their prose, eliminated misspellings and grammar errors. They weren’t stupid, they knew better than to submit something that they hadn’t slaved over, worked on, smoothed and shaped until they could do no more.
Aside from the obvious (POV mistakes, wrong genre for that particular agent, grammar errors) the agents all agreed that they will put a manuscript aside immediately if it opens with a cliché.
As they go on, as pages are read and discarded, you can see the writers, who, at first, were hanging on the agents’ every word, nodding, have become glassy-eyed zombies, confused, perplexed. They frown. Glance at each other out of the corners of their eyes. Because, it seems, after twenty minutes of reading and rejecting, these agents believe that everything is a cliché.
Opening with a funeral.
In the afterlife.
The first day of school.
The bang of a gavel. Or closing of a cell door.
Release from prison.
The discovery of a charmed/mysterious object.
The beginning of a journey.
First day on the job.
Awakening in a hospital.
That’s an awful lot of clichés, isn’t it? In fact, that covers most of a person’s life in any genre of writing. Once these are eliminated, what is left?
After I watched and listened, making notes about my fellow writers more than the agents sitting at the front, I realized something. Agents – these agents in particular – were just not that good at communicating the real reasons they were rejecting these stories. They weren’t rejecting stories because of opening clichés, they were rejecting them because these opening scenarios were badly written. They were not compelling or interesting. It wasn’t the scenario itself that the agents were rejecting, it was the way the writer was dealing with it.
As readers, I think we react the same way. We pick up a book at the bookstore (yes, they are still around! Real books! Shelves with pretty covers! Go find one!) and we turn it over to read the blurb. It’s about a young girl starting the 3rd new school of the year. It’s about a woman who just got married and realizes her husband is a murderer. It’s about a young knight going on a quest. It’s about a boy about to celebrate his 11th birthday whose life is changing because he’s realized he has superpowers! (Way to go, Ms. Rowling, that’s 3 clichés in the Philosopher’s Stone alone!)
These scenarios are how books start. What agents are looking for are new, exquisite, intelligent and creative ways to handle them. And it’s what readers are looking for when they plunk down their money to begin at Chapter One.
Fan fiction is no different. Fan fic writers often gravitate towards the same scenarios. They pick a particular episode to write about. Like-minded fans choose based on their emotional reactions to these episodes. How many fics have been written around the NCIS episode “Dead Air,” or “Boxed Out?” How many SG-1 writers have taken the angsty scenes of “Shades of Grey” and expanded on them? What Star Trek writer hasn’t tried his hand at exploring “Amok Time,” or “The Inner Light”?
I’ve read hundreds of fan fics. I’ve read dozens surrounding the same episode – written from different perspectives with differing voices and scenarios. So, dear writer, I submit that it is not the possibly clichéd circumstances that begin your novel that will lead to rejection. It’s something else.
(What is that ‘something else,’ you ask? Stay tuned, I have some thoughts about that as well.)
So, write about a wedding. A birth. A new school. A cancer diagnosis. Write what you want to write about. Make it compelling. Creative. Emotional. Make it yours. Make it great.
It’s your story. Stop trying to figure out what Simon Cowell would like and write it.