Turning Off an Agent

The new issue of Writer’s Digest (Nov/Dec 2008) has a fiction column by novelist Steve Almond, where he talks about Anton Chekov’s theory that new writers need to start their book later in the story so the opening is more interesting.

This goes along somewhat with the “agent pet peeves” we’ve been talking about recently.  Check out what Almond has to say:

“If you’re wondering whether you should cut the first three pages of your most recent draft, consider the following questions:
       1. Is your protagonist alone for these pages?
       2. Is he in bed or in a bathtub?
       3. Is he imbued with an indeterminate sense of malaise?
       4. Does the ‘action’ consist of your protagonist thinking while carrying out activities that demonstrate his malaise?”

If you say yes to any of these questions, you have an opening that will likely turn off an agent.  Beware.

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9 thoughts on “Turning Off an Agent

  1. Rebecca Thrower

    In the not-so distant past many contemporary novels opened or ended with the protagonist looking out a window. I’ve railed against formulaic fiction for years. If it isn’t character and dialogue driven why would anyone waste their time reading it?

  2. Lisa

    It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

    Hmmm… seems that for every rule, there’s a reason why it worked for someone else.

    The truth is that an agent should be intrigued by anything good enough – even if it does break one of those rules. It’s all about the quality.

  3. Marian

    I thought of starting a story with the protagonist in a bathrub.

    What immediately came to mind was : 1. a serial killer trying to drown the protagonist 2. tentacles creeping up through the drain to grab the protagonist’s ankle 3. the protagonist reduced to the height of half an inch (just like in "The Incredible Shrinking Man") and having to navigate the Bathtub Ocean with the help of a rubber duck.

    It was a fun experience. But those were the only circumstances under which I’d want to read a story which began with the protagonist in a bathtub, so I could understand agents not being too keen on it.

  4. Alex Moore

    I think it was agent Nathan Bransford who blogged last month that he’d received 3 or 4 queries in the past week that started out with the protagonist staring out a window… I find it fascinating that there are "newbie" traits that only the well-versed in publication really know about. To the struggling author, it feels so fresh and new; but to the agent who’s seen everything, it’s bloody boring. Great post.

  5. Usman

    Doesn’t this go against the other advice that we see so often in Writers Boards and Blogs: To start off with the conflict asap.
    I understand Chuck’s post that a lonely, introverted Protag can so many times be a turn off.

  6. Scott Eagan


    You are so right on this one. When you consider that we are only looking at a project for a short period of time, you have to get us hooked somehow. Of course, the flip side of this is when we see an author start off with the main action of the book, or even worse, some sort of irrelevant action. We don’t need to see a car crash or chase scene, but we do need to see movement.


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