Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Top Culprits For Why Agents Stop Reading

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Getting ready for the craziness of BEA next week.

Listening To:

WINDOWS ARE ROLLED DOWN by Amos Lee

Two weekends ago, I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a chance to not only do a read-and-critique session, but also my infamous Agent Reads the Slush Pile workshop.

Doing these classes always provides fresh insight into why I stop reading a submission. Here are the top culprits so you, too, can start thinking like an agent when you read your opening chapters. If you say yes to any of them, time to dig into a revision!

1) Does your opening chapter begin with action, but then stop abruptly so that your character can sit and think or reminisce? About 50 percent of the pages we tackled did just that.

It’s a passive way to begin a story and means you’ve started in the wrong place.

2) Analyze your opening dialogue, and then the exposition that immediately follows it. Does your telling simply reiterate what was already clear in the dialogue?

3) Do you have a prologue? Is it in a different voice or style from the rest of the novel, or does it take a different direction? Is the prologue just an info dump about the world or backstory youthink the reader needs to know? Decide if it’s really necessary to include a prologue, as most agents will skip to chapter one or will stop reading altogether.

4) Do you repeat a fun element that was absolutely funny the first time around, but when it is repeated, it loses impact?

5) Does your opening chapter include nothing but dialogue? Not anchoring the reader clearly in a physical scene is a key culprit for why agents don’t read on. They have no way to imagine the scene.

6) How much of your opening chapter is in the current scene and how much is backstory? Remember that you, as the writer, need to know your character’s backstory, but the reader doesn’t need to know it right away in order to be pulled into your story.


5 Responses

  1. Lynn said:

    Great post, Kristin! It’s always helpful to get an agent’s perspective on our first pages. I have a question about number 1 and reminiscing. What if your story starts at the end, then goes back to the beginning and circles its way to the end once again, is that frowned upon? It was done very well in The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman and The Notebook by Nicolas Sparks, to name but two. In a sense Jamie Ford did it in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, although Jamie did jump around between the present and the past. As for numbers 2 – 6, no problems, there. Thanks again for your insight!

  2. Anita Diggs said:

    Very good article! It is always discouraging when a manuscript doesn’t quite grab you. Opening with a great scene involves catching the reader in the first few sentences. Another way to write a really great scene is that a scene should have conflict. And conflict doesn’t always have to be bad; it just simply means that someone in the scene wants something that the other one doesn’t want to do or doesn’t want them to have. It could be very simple, but it has to have conflict.

    1. Lynda said:

      Just read about beginning a novel with action is the wrong step. Yikes! Mine does exactly that however, my character does not stop to think. It is a time travel whose opening is in an unknown world, then flips back and forth to our modern world (first 2 chapters). Any feedback would be appreciated!

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