What Makes Agents Stop Reading (SiWC), and We Have a Winner!

First off, congrats to Phillipa, the winner of my first ever book giveaway!

Thanks to everyone who entered.  I will be doing another one soon, and you’ll have another chance to win then, by commenting here, on Reddit, and my Facebook page.  🙂

And now, more notes from SiWC!  This time I’ll be taking a look at their wonderful “Surrey International Writers’ Conference IDOL”.  Basically, it’s four people skilled in the art of rejecting authors, and one person who reads.  What do they read?

Everyone is invited to submit the first page- ONLY the first page- of their manuscript.  It’s blind and it’s stark and brutal and beautiful; the words have to do the work, there’s no preamble, no explanation, no baggage of any kind to go along with them.

Here are the rules: if one of the four judges raise their hand, the reader keeps reading.  But if a second judge raises their hand, the reading stops, and the judges explain why they stopped it.

If they get to the end with one or zero hands raised, they also talk about it.

It’s absolutely fabulous.  Riveting.  There were some amazing first pages mixed in with the mediocre and the just plain bad.

To give you some context, the judges were:

Michelle Johnson, founding agent of Inklings Lit.

Nephele Tempest, an agent at The Knight Agency.

Patricia Ocampo, an agent at Transatlantic.

Bree Ogden, agent with D4OE Lit.

And the reader was the illustrious Jack Whyte, author of such novels as The Camulod Chronicles, The Knights Templar Trilogy, and The Bravehearts Chronicle, and owner of one of the most magnificent voices I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.  I would have listened to him read a phone book.  But instead, he kept me captivated with stories of every kind, his sonorous Scottish accent lulling me into that wonderful state of “I’m listening, please, never stop.”

So that’s our setup.  Four amazing women in the industry waiting to blind judge the first words, sentences, and, if the writer was lucky, the first paragraphs of as many first pages as they could get through.

Here’s why they stopped readings, peppered with reasons why Jack Whyte made it to the end of a page without the hammer coming down.

Please note- the first pages spanned every genre and tone, and going into the specifics of what they contained would not add to this; the reasons for stopping reading are universal.  I hope my notes are enough to give you an overall sense of why agents put work down in the first few sentences.  And as usual, this is a mix of the agents’ words and my own interpretations and additions.

x= complete stop, 1/2= one hand up, but made it to the end, and ✓= no hands raised.

x  too much happening- what is going on, we the reader cannot make heads or tales.

x  too boring, there’s no hook.

x  who is talking?  And why do we care about them?  (Not identifying your narrator or having a clear main character was a much-repeated reason to get the agents to stop the reading).

✓  pacing was great, and there was a good balance between setting and character.

✓  the voice was clear and captivating, there was an excellent balance of setting, character, all aspects; drew us in.

x  too much description, going nowhere.

x  there’s more to a story than beautiful imagery.  Wonderful writing, but flowery descriptions are not what draws people into the beginning of a story.

x  to local- super specific small town setting was a turnoff (so we need to set our stories in Anytown, USA?  Dang.).

1/2  (one hand raised, this first page barely squeaked past)  not much happening, nothing at stake, no conflict.  No reason to put it down, but also no reason to keep going either.

x  too much exposition- thinking about thinking, telling not showing, no action, the age of the narrator is inconsistent (the voice was inconsistent, giving the reader mixed impressions of the narrator), what is the conflict, and there were 2 typos ._.

x  cliché and lame, plus the implausibility of a 14 year old being in handcuffs, AND being able to pick them.

1/2  we’re lost; it’s interesting, but *what* is going on.  Confusing your reader is not the same as hooking them.

x  waking up (don’t start your story with your character waking up.)  (Seriously, don’t.)

1/2  good description but confusing- who is the protagonist, who is the narrator; beautiful, but what is the story?  Sometimes it’s useful to flip the first chapter, putting the end at the beginning, to draw the reader into the story (the setup comes after drawing them in).  Telling not showing…

1/2  all backstory and repetitive writing.  Varying sentence structure was great and switching up what the sentence is about (switching between character, description etc).  Cliché opening line was a turnoff.

x  descriptions galore, choppy, unrealistic depiction of emotion, unrealistic reactions.

x   waking up (don’t start your story with your character waking up) (seriously, don’t).

x  word usage- “lovers” and other sex specific words (this was an agent preference).  Trying to be clever- the writer getting in the way of the tone (see my previous post on how the author intrudes on the story).  The description doesn’t match the tone and content; huge disconnect between content and the voice.

x  a lot of telling, no showing

x  description of how someone travelled- who cares, and now we’re in another location.  We don’t need to know what airline they flew.  Rule of thumb for backstory: a little at the beginning, some in the middle, none at the end.

1/2  saying the same thing in several ways, get on with it.  Beautiful sentences, but telling not showing.  Whose story is it.

1/2  great voice but too many adjectives, cliché and poor word choice.

SO!  That is the list of commentary I took down as the judges meted out their sentences on those authors lucky enough to have their first pages drawn for the reading (it was random, and no, mine was not one of the lucky to be eviscerated evaluated, which is a shame, because none of the others started off the way mine did, and it would have been lovely to hear what they thought!).

Hope others find this helpful.  I surely did, and it I was glad to have had the opportunity to hear this raw and unfiltered look into what gets an agent hooked enough to want more.

Several of those writers whose work made it to the end were asked to approach the agents afterwards.  One of them was Russel, a young man whose story of a jester on stage absolutely captivated the room.  When Jack Whyte looked up at his audience and found us spellbound, and we realized there was no more to the story, there was an audible reaction from the crowd.  We wanted more.  And so did two of the agents.  I went up to Russel afterwards and offered my congratulations; he hadn’t finished the manuscript, but he had talent enough to hold a room full of his peers.

What an opportunity!  This is one event at SiWC that I will attend every time.

Cheers.

Heidi out.

P.S. It’s the last day of Aaron’s (well funded) Kickstarter campaign for a superior Spirograph!  Check it out and join the fun!

MATHEMATICAL!

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About H.G. Bells

H.G. Bells writes around the intersections of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. She has several short stories in print, and is repped by Beth Campbell for her novel Sleep Over, coming soon from Skyhorse Publishing.
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5 Responses to What Makes Agents Stop Reading (SiWC), and We Have a Winner!

  1. Dave says:

    Great post, Heidi. Thanks for sharing what happened at SiWC Idol. Almost as good as being there 🙂

    BTW – Got to your blog via your recent post in reddit which was forwarded to me by my son. Funny how things work, huh?

  2. Dave says:

    Reblogged this on According to Dave and commented:
    Great post summarizing why agents stop reading manuscripts after only a page (or less). Some reasons are familiar, others not so much. Taken as a whole they make a good list to refer back to before submitting that next manuscript.

  3. Great share. I don’t reblog but now I must 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on Aurora Morealist and commented:
    Not one for reblogging, I ‘had’ to share this one for all writer friends:

  5. I was so surprised to see SIWC!!! I kept reading and was also happy as I placed first one year… Memories… 😉

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