Pub Rants

Two Pages Tops

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STATUS: Boy do I need to catch up reading after the move. I have to admit that Sara and I are a little behind on reading queries and partials right now. Perhaps I can catch up this weekend.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LUCKY STAR by Madonna

Sometimes I wonder if I’m revealing a deep dark agent secret and whether it pays to be brutally honest on this blog.

There will always be some anonymous commenter who will see it as the sign of the publishing apocalypse. Big smile here.

When reading sample pages, I have literally stopped reading after the first opening paragraph. (Sometimes the writing is just that bad.)

That’s pretty rare. However, I’d say, on average, that I can tell a NO within the first two to five pages of a submission. .

I know this is probably appalling for writers. How can ANYONE make a determination in such a short span of pages?

Trust me. Spend one week at an agency reading the submissions and after you’ve read thousands and thousands of partials, you know.

Like a good melon…

Sometimes it’s the quality of the writing (or the lack there of). Sometimes the writing is solid and the story just isn’t right for me. Sometimes the writing is really good and I just haven’t clue what I would do with the work.

Sometimes I just like it but don’t LOVE it and that’s enough to be the deciding factor.

But on the whole, it’s rare that I read the entire 30 pages I request before making a determination. That’s probably not super encouraging but at least you know the truth about those all important first 10 pages.

32 Responses

  1. kathie said:

    I’m first! Well, this is very good to know, Ms. Nelson. Thanks so much for letting us know that all that energy on such a small portion of text isn’t just a cute writing exercise!

  2. BuffySquirrel said:

    I’ve never read agency slush, but I have read plenty of magazine slush. And yes, once you’ve been doing it a while, usually you can tell pretty quickly if the story’s going to fit the ‘zine.

    It’s heart-breaking tho’ to read something that starts really well, and then falters. Sometimes I think writers don’t pay enough attention to endings. Stories shouldn’t just stop.

  3. Anonymous said:

    “When reading sample pages, I’ve literally have stopped reading after the first opening paragraph. (Sometimes it truly is just that bad in terms of the writing.)…
    I know this probably appalls writers.”

    Given the grammatical, word choice and spelling goofs in this passage, how can you tell?

  4. Kimber An said:

    I believe it. Three months into the query process, several partial requests and rejections later, a quick skim before sending the Star Captains’ Daughter again turned up massive pronoun conflicts in the very first paragraph! This was after a bazillion revisions. This is when banging one’s head on a keyboard comes into play. After knocking one’s self senseless, it’s back to work, eyes rolling of course.

  5. Marva said:

    Hey, Kimber. Since I’ve seen your work, I’m wondering why you haven’t been snatched up by an agent. It’s amazing what gets missed therefore gets you a rejection. On the other hand, some agents are missing out on a sweet deal, aren’t they?

    P.S. Not referring to my own poor attempts at fame and fortune.

  6. Anonymous said:

    I give a novel 50 pages, but sometimes there are a few that I can’t get past page two or three. I can imagine that slush would be even worse. There are too many good novels I’ll never read if I waste my time reading bad ones. And sure, I probably miss a few this way, but most of the time I read great stuff.

  7. Kimber An said:

    Thanks, Marva. The feedback I got from agents was that SCD is a great story, but the writing wasn’t up to job yet. It doesn’t matter how great a story is if the author can’t clearly communicate it to the reader.

    I’ve been blessed with a lot of Crunchy Critters and Blog Buddies showering me with feedback, advise, and encouragement though. Maybe the next round of queries will be the one for me. One thing is certain, those who give up never succeed.

    And, no, I’m not querying Kristin, so don’t anyone think I’m ‘kissing up.’ (cue the rolling of eyes here)

  8. spyscribbler said:

    You know, this sounds right to me. Browsers in a bookstore don’t even look at two pages.

    Besides, I did a pitch workshop with you. You knew every single problem with my manuscript, by reading one or two sentences. I’m a believer, now. 🙂

  9. 2readornot said:

    I used to be a teacher, and i believe it! I’ve learned in the past couple of years that I’ve been at this, that your comments don’t mean that a writer’s work is bad…it just means you know what you want and you know when it’s not what you’re reading…and that’s a good thing. That’s what a writer wants in an agent (well, the agent who loves their work, of course).

  10. the grump said:

    Thank you for your confession about not reading complete samples. Can you believe I’ve been wondering how you … and Miz Snark, say … get any work done while blogging? You must ration the amount of time you spend on blogs. Otherwise, it’d take a major chunk out of your life.

    It’s ration time for me in a different way. Now that I’ve decided I’ve researched querying enough, I’m going to have blog withdrawal symptoms.

  11. Debra Parmley said:

    I heard Noah Lukeman say the same thing at the Antioch Writers Workshop a few years ago.

    In fact he has a book, The First Five Pages, which goes over this.

    He signed it for me. The inscription reads… “It is never too late.”

    Thanks, Kristin (and Noah if you’re reading this) for being HONEST.

  12. Stacia D. Kelly said:

    So, on the flip side…what is it that grabs your attention…as an editor? I know what grabs my attention as READER, and as a writer (although I know there are certain areas I have a long way to go in).

    I’m curious.

  13. Termagant 2 said:

    Most of us have heard this before. In fact, at a conference once an editor from a large NY romance house requested first-five-page submissions from, say, twenty writers. She then read parts of them aloud in seminar and commented on where she would stop reading, and why.

    Her comments were brutal. On one piece, she read half a sentence before saying, “Let’s stop right here,” and then told why she wouldn’t “waste any more time on it.”

    Hello? One sentence? It wasn’t as though this sentence was poorly written or anything. My crit partner and I, standing in the back so as to comment privately without receiving Icy Glares, said, “This woman must have the attention span of a gnat.”

    After that, wherever she stoppd reading, my crit partner and I snickered and whispered to each other, “Let’s stop right here.”

    I “stopped right here” 10 pages into the only Nora R book I ever read. Man, was that thing boring.

    But this left me wondering: are most editors so quick to stop reading? Do they all have ADHD? It left me certain of two things: 1) never to submit anything to this editor and 2) make sure that my first few sentences are at least zingy enough to hold a reader’s focus for a moment in time.


  14. Ryan Field said:

    “Debra Parmley said…
    I heard Noah Lukeman say the same thing at the Antioch Writers Workshop a few years ago.”

    I think the most important factor behind Noah’s book and his work is that while you can’t always define what’s good writing, or even what’s art, you can spot bad writing at a glance.

  15. Nonny said:

    I’ve done minor slush reading, for a friend who was putting together an anthology. Most of the submissions were from a very popular and respected science fiction and fantasy critique site.

    I didn’t read past the first page on most of the stories, because they were that bad. Out of something like thirty submissions, there were less than five I considered “good enough” to publish. Even then, all but one needed serious revision.

    The anthology never saw publication, but for me as a writer, it was an eye-opening experience. It’s something I wish more writers had a chance to do, because even if it is on a MUCH smaller scale, experiencing the other side of the desk, as it were, is invaluable.

  16. Janny said:

    Over and over I hear writers say, “You can’t possibly know if something’s wrong for you in that little time.”

    To which I say, “Oh, yes, you can.”

    Even on one sentence.

    Trust me on this; I’ve been on both sides of the desk, as a writer, an editor, a contest judge, a critiquer…all of the above. And there have been times when, judging contests, I had to force myself to read past the first paragraph, just in hopes that the work might improve. That the author might just be “getting a slow start.” Yanno.

    In 99.999% of the cases, it never happens.

    So, yeah, it sounds brutal. But the fact is, you know if something doesn’t work for you virtually within seconds. It’s much harder to evaluate the stuff that’s NOT bad. That’s very close…just not quite there. Those, you second-guess yourself on endlessly. Those are the ones that, as Buffy put it, break your editor’s heart.

    My take,

  17. Anonymous said:

    “Lucky sat in the empty diner on the squeaky red plastic seats, designed for another age, a time gone by. His Marlboro red hung from his chapped lips as he coughed wetly through the smoke. The handle of his revolver, a Smith & Wesson, was jammed against his ribcage, a constant reminder of what he had to do when he finished his cold grilled cheese. The coffee wasn’t bad, but it was old, old and black, like the tired eyes of the woman who poured it. Her name was Pam, or so her name tag said, and she brought back childhood memories of a woman who said, “Kiss my grits!” in a trailer trash kind of way, but sadder in her stained apron.”

    Deliver me from Sam Spade. I read as far as the second sentence.

  18. Cindy Procter-King said:

    Even reading contest entries, you can understand how an editor or agent would quickly become accustomed to nailing what they want and don’t want within the first few pages of reading. There are just too many variables, and personal taste is one of them.


  19. Anonymous said:

    Personal taste is huge, and trying to appeal to someone you don’t know is dicey. You have to write what you like, and then find an agent who likes similar things.

    Do agents bail out too quickly? It depends on what was written. If someone is a crappy writer, it should be obvious within a few paragraphs, if not sentences. A crummy writer is not going to fool someone into reading bad prose for three or four pages, in the hope that the reader will get to the exciting meat of the story. And no matter how brilliant the concept may be, nobody’s going to find out just how brilliant it is if the writer is a lousy story-teller.

    Feel bad for the person with the skill and craft already in place, the one who gets his/her manuscript into an agent’s hands and is rejected because they are the wrong hands.

    I got rejected with this- “while you’re a good writer, I wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic…” I was excited that a bigtime agent said I was a good writer, and bumming that my partial is admitedly a boring load of crap.

  20. Anonymous said:

    The vampire was a woman and sexy in a red dress. Joe looked for the door but could not find it to escape through, so he tried to shoot her with his gun. The vampire with her blonde hair came up the stairs, laughing at Joe because he was afraid and peed his pants in fear.

    Oh, no!” Joe said, and he opened the door. But the vampire was faster than a bullet and was on the fire escape before him.

    “Did you think you were escaping, Joe?” she said breathily, and bit him in the throat.

    See? That’s garbage. How many times do you think an agent reads something that bad and tosses it aside, grimacing and wishing she’d been a finance major in college?

    Give them your pity, for they are the targets that poo-flinging zoo-monkeys dream of.

  21. Zany Mom said:

    After reading Miss Snark’s crapometer, I’d say yes, I’m sure you CAN tell after just a couple of paragraphs/pages. Obvious to me as well.

  22. Solveig Haugland said:

    I usually give anything between one paragraph and two pages when I’m trying to pick out a book to read. So Kristin’s rule makes sense to me.

    It’s got to be alive; somehow, and this is of course kind of an obscure thing to say, but it’s got to have the right texture.

    (Guilty secret. I would read the Sam Spade stuff a lot in an earlier post sooner than I’d read a lot of writing out there. He’s campy, but he draws me in.)

  23. katiesandwich said:

    I totally agree with this. This is why I think it’s so important for writers to belong to some sort of crit group, either “in the flesh” or online. It teaches you how important that beginning is like nothing else can.

  24. Anonymous said:

    On the other hand, what about those manuscripts whose first ten pages (or three chapters) have been polished, and repolished, submitted to contests, etc., and are wonderful.
    Then the manuscript falls apart.
    While you want to hook the reader, you have to finish the job as well.

  25. Anonymous said:

    Anon #1, I agree that Ms. Nelson sometimes makes mistakes in punctuation & grammar, but hers are minor. Wanna see bad? Check out Agent in the Middle. Her posts are sloppy, sneering, & sometimes wrong on the facts. But I look at her blog as a positive thing because she’s saving more than a few people the trouble & postage of querying her. She sounds like she’d be happier with fewer queries, anyway, so everybody wins.

  26. dancinghorse said:

    anonymous 7:19, two points:

    1. An agent doesn’t have to be a brilliant speller or grammarian. She simply (!) has to recognize what is good enough to be published, and what will sell.

    2. It’s ever so easy to be bitchy when no one knows who you are.

  27. Dragonfly said:

    Happy Friday! I’m new to this blog and apologize if posing the following question is inappropriate.

    I was fortunate enough to land an agent for my first novel and we worked together for a few months before she became too “busy”.

    Now when I query agents should I mention this experience and the fact that my novel has been submitted to a few publishing houses (obviously with no success)?

    I welcome any input . . .

  28. Tina said:

    Admittedly, a lot of writing out there sucks, and, frankly, the bookstores are filled with it, so it’s sort of hard to take it that seriously when you say that the first paragraph is enough for you to make a decision. You are clearly looking for something that speaks to you personally and that you also think you can sell — so, really, this is primarily about what you want out of a story. What I want, as a literate consumer, may be completely different. FYI, that would be less self-indulgent-I-must-have-another-pair-of-Manolo-Blahniks-and-oh-is-that-another-mutilated-corpse-under-my-Courvoisier-swigging-unhappily-married-best-friend’s-antique-china-hutch?

  29. j h woodyatt said:

    Heh. You should see how I browse through the racks at my bookstore. I can usually tell within the first page alone whether I’m ever going to enjoy it.

    And that’s with published works. I nearly clawed my eyes out after being a member of an online critique list for six weeks.

    I’m pretty sure my writing is better than about 75% of the slush, but I’m not sure if it’s better than 99%. We’ll see when I’m done rewriting.

  30. Anonymous said:

    This is not really a comment, but is it improper to fix a query letter and resend it to an agent who rejected it the first time?