What stops an agent from wanting to read more of your story?
One of the most popular events each year at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference is a workshop called SIWC Idol. Think American Idol except for writers. Anybody who’s brave enough can submit the first page of their manuscript to be read in front of a panel of judges—four literary agents.
Author Jack Whyte, in his deep and resonant voice, reads a random selection of first pages in front of the 200 or so writers. He reads until at least two of the agents raise their hand indicating this is where they’d stop reading if they were reading the submission in their office. The agents then explain why they stopped where they did.
I was lucky enough to be one of the few submissions where a hand wasn’t raised. But what exactly stops an agent from wanting to read further?
- Too much description up front that’s not interwoven into the action and dialogue. A long paragraph of description.
- A feeling that the writer is setting the scene and the story isn’t going anywhere. No sense of impending action.
- Too much scene setting with no feeling of who the main character is.
- A character’s stream of thought that doesn’t feel believable. i.e. a young boy whose thoughts read and feel like those of an adult.
- Prose that feels “too poetic” where there is a lack of story.
- A character waking up from a dream or waking up from being unconscious. Hands down (pun intended) this made the agents groan every time. In the 27 first pages read during class, at least 4 or 5 started with somebody waking up. Don’t go there.
- Too regional of a setting – one agent stopped the reading a couple of times because the extreme regional setting turned her off. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t locate your story but try to make it universal as well.
- A boring, pedestrian opening with no hint of conflict or action on the horizon.
- Too much internal dialogue, too much angst, too much thinking about thinking. Enough already! Move on.
- An unbelievable action such as a young teen in handcuffs who can pick the cuffs free without any indication that they have any special powers or abilities to do so.
- Purple, overwritten prose.
- Too much telling, not enough showing.
These were the agents’ major objections. The most important thing I learned is to introduce the action early on in the novel and not ramble around too much trying to set the scene or find my footing. Think of everything as a balance—action, dialogue, setting, description, narration, etc.
One of the agents asked us to think of them sitting in their office and reading hundreds of submissions at a time. After a few hours of reading, they can develop a brutal attitude. The key is to grab their attention and never let go.
Remember, writing good prose is important but storytelling trumps all.