7 Reasons Agents Stop Reading Your First Chapter

Previously, I attended the Writer Idol Event at Boston Book Fest. It was not for the faint of heart, but for those willing to brave public ridicule, it was a great way to get helpful feedback.

This is how it worked: An actress picked manuscripts at random and read the first 250 words out loud for the panel and the audience. If at any point a panelist felt he would stop reading, he raised his hand. The actress read until two or more panelists raised their hands, at which point the panel discussed the reasons they stopped, or in cases where the actress read to the end, they discussed what worked. Helene Atwan (Director of Beacon Press) and agents Esmond Harmsworth, Eve Bridburg, and Janet Silver (all from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth) served on the panel.

(How much money can you expect from selling your first book?)

This guest column by Livia Blackburne.
Livia is a graduate student at MIT.

She describes her blog as “A Brain Scientist’s
on Creative Writing.”

These panelists were tough! I’d say less than 25% made it to the end of the passage. Here are some of the common reasons panelists stopped reading.

1. Generic beginnings: Stories that opened with the date or the weather didn’t really inspire interest. According to Harmsworth, you are only allowed to start with the weather if you’re writing a book about meteorologists. Otherwise, pick something more creative.

2. Slow beginnings: Some manuscripts started with too much pedestrian detail (characters washing dishes, etc) or unnecessary background information.

(Learn how to start your novel strong.)

3. Trying too hard: Sometimes it seemed like a writer was using big words or flowery prose in an attempt to sound more sophisticated. In several cases, the writer used big words incorrectly. Awkward or forced imagery was also a turnoff. At one point, the panelists raised their hands when a character’s eyes were described as “little lubricated balls moving back and forth.”

4. TMI (Too Much Information): Overly detailed description of bodily functions or medical examinations had the panelists begging for mercy.

5. Clichés: “The buildings were ramrod straight.” “The morning air was raw.” “Character X blossomed into Y.” “A young woman looks into the mirror and tells us what she sees.” Clichés are hard to avoid, but when you revise, go through and try to remove them.

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

6. Loss of Focus: Some manuscripts didn’t have a clear narrative and hopped disjointedly from one theme to the next.

7. Unrealistic internal narrative: Make sure a character’s internal narrative—what the character is thinking or feeling—matches up with reality.  For example, you wouldn’t want a long eloquent narration of what getting strangled feels like—the character would be too busy gasping for breath and passing out. Also, avoid having the character think about things just for the sake of letting the reader know about them.

Hope these tips are helpful. Do you see any of these mistakes in your writing?

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23 thoughts on “7 Reasons Agents Stop Reading Your First Chapter

  1. ijambrovic

    I read tips like these regularly but what I don’t understand is this: there are so many books that are published (some wildly popular!) that break all these rules. Some of those books are by popular authors, some are first time writers that go on and publish a trilogy.
    Is there a certain genre that this applies to (the great first chapter, I mean)? Thrillers or crime solving books? For example, when I read a Harlan Cobens or Lee Childs books I can’t seem to put them down but those books never have ratings over 3,7 on Goodreads.
    Likewise, some romance, YA or even some classic books (Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby to name a few) judging by their first chapters are just boring and I wonder why they ever got published? Can someone please explain this?

  2. Heart2Heart

    I attended a conference this year and one big no-no was the inclusion of a cellphone conversation or one ringing on the first pages. Also opening with a dream. The bottom line is they are looking for something creative that hooks the reader from the get-go and causes the reader to keep on reading.

  3. mollyringle

    These are great! I know I committed, oh, all of them in my first several manuscripts. (I *think* I know better now, but I probably slip up sometimes…)

    Am I the only one who dislikes the “quick flash-forward tidbit of action” as a teaser opening? ‘Twilight’ does this, and so do several others–three paragraphs of intense “I knew I was about to die” action that isn’t actually going to take place for another 250 pages, and therefore feels like cheating when it comes to a hook.

  4. Graeme_Smith

    “September. A great grey storm swept its pelting rain up the pastures of Duncton Hill and then on into the depths of the oaks and beechaes of Duncton Wood itself”.

    Heh. The first 133 (or 144 if my toothpick count skipped one) are much the same, until we first see Bracken. Of course, we’re not all William Horwood :-). Which is not, I must add, a recommendation to follow his example – but an example, natheless.

  5. Lisa Loewen

    I was just at the Surrey International Writers Conference where they did this same thing. All first pages were read by the wonderful Jack Whyte in his gravelly, Scottish burr. (Which made the teen lit sound very funny!) Editors commented on many of the same “mistakes” yet all admitted to how subjective the process of reading was – certain topics or phrases just jarred them the wrong way. I think submitting your manuscript is like throwing a needle in a hay stack and hoping that someone will find it. Possible but…?

  6. Jeanne Charters

    What a great idea! Now, I just have to find some really objective listeners for our writers’ critique members. We’re in Asheville, NC. Anyone close by want to partner up? I’m an actress and could do the reading. It would be painful to watch those hands go up in the air, but not as painful as rejections from a literary agent.

    Also, I’ll definitely check into the Boston Book Fest. I plan to be back in Boston for a visit in September.

    Thank you, Livia and Chuck.

  7. Evelyn

    Wow! Love this stuff. Thank you, Livia, for putting this together and thank you, Chuck, for including it here!

    I was so thrilled to find this blog in the process of a blog Carnival! Wow! Oh, I said that. 🙂 Chuck, how do I love thee? Let me count the… OMG! Cliche! LOL! Not to worry, I just subscribed!

  8. Sean P Canavan

    This article is really inciting! Makes me look back at my last two books and wonder where the mistakes were. Although I’ve never tried a commercial publisher before either. I always assume my writing is not good enough for commercial publishing.

  9. suzie townsend

    Around our office, several agents complain about manuscripts that start when the main character is waking up. Most of those manuscripts seem to open too slowly. There are always exceptions (Hunger Games, for one) but a lot of the time, the first chapter is usually too slow and could be cut.

  10. J. M. Strother

    What a great exercise and wonderful opportunity. It is so valuable to get real feedback from pros in the field. I submitted a story at a convention this year. The best thing about it is all entries got both written and live feedback after the winner was announced. Unfortunately I did not win, but the feedback was terrific. Anytime a writer has an opportunity like this they should jump on it. It might hurt (or not!) but it is an incalculable gift.

  11. Livia Blackburne

    Thanks for all the comments folks — regarding the strangling — do keep in mind that the strangling example was based on one passage from one excerpt that was read that day. It’s possible that another person could make a long strangulation scene work. The best thing is probably to get objective readers to let you know what they think.

  12. Amitha

    The things I am most guilty of while writing my first drafts are #4 and #5. I try my best during subsequent revisions to whittle these down, but avoiding cliches can be tough. Once a cliche is written down, I have trouble coming up with something else to replace it.

    I’m not sure if I completely agree with your example of #7 — describing being strangled. When something traumatic happens and you’re really stressed out, doesn’t it REALLY feel like time slows down? There is a reason people do this over and over again when writing. Also, couldn’t it also work when you are writing in past tense? Once you’ve had time to reflect on an event, you might have all sorts of (true or false) memories about what it was like when you were experiencing it. But I totally agree that internal narratives should make sense and not feel forced.

    Great advice, Livia!

  13. Eva Ulian

    Pity the author who wrote the following didn’t read your blog first:

    “Your grandfather gave you the key, but failed to give you the account number?”

    If I wrote anything near such a phrase, what would you say? You’d say that such simpleton repetition is insulting your intelligence, would you not? What about this:

    “Jacques Saunière is dead?” he demanded, his eyes filling with horror. “But… How?!”
    It’s so overdramatic it makes you want to laugh- but it’s not a joke- in fact it’s quite tragic that this is acclaimed as the crème de crème of English literature. And I am not, by any means, the first to make such annotations on the book.

    Oh yes the book- all on the same page of The Da Vinci Code.


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