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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. (This guest column by Livia Blackburne.)

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?)

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

She describes her blog as "A Brain Scientist's
Take
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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