We spend a lot of time on these blogs discussing what makes an agent say “yes, I want to see more” or “no thanks” after reading a query. And last week I tried to give you some idea of the things I’m looking for in a manuscript, things that make me want to keep reading your partial or full. Today I’m going to approach it from the opposite angle. I want to address the question of what makes me say “no” after I’ve requested your manuscript.
Of course, there could be any number of problems that make me stop reading and/or say no. I just want to mention two major things I’ve been noticing lately.
1. The story falls apart after the first 2-3 chapters.
With a surprising number of manuscripts, the first two or three chapters are polished and amazing and full of action and contain a great hook to keep me reading. In other words, it’s a compelling set-up. But the book falls apart quickly after that. The tension disappears, action is slow or non-existent, plot is weak, there is too much narrative and not enough scenes, or it all gets bogged down in backstory. The fact is, there’s a big difference between being able to write a few great chapters, and being able to sustain the tension and interest throughout 80,000+ words.
I’ve noticed something that might indicate part of the problem. Writers who are entering their fiction in lots of contests typically have twenty-or-so pages that are really great (because that’s all most contests require you to submit). But frequently the rest of the manuscript is nowhere near as good as the opening.
So ask yourself: Have you put as much work into the last 90% of the book as you put into the first 10%?
2. The manuscript doesn’t pass the “put it down” test.
This is my own little gauge to help me determine if I really like a book. It always takes several days to read a full manuscript. I read in bits of time here and there (never during the regular work day), which is helpful because it approximates the way most people read novels. So, after I’ve put the MS down—how eager am I to pick it up again? During the interim, how much am I thinking about the story and wondering what’s going to happen? When my reading time rolls back around again, am I excited to pick up the book, or do I feel more like I’ve been assigned to read something for a class?
This is a huge indicator of whether or not your story is crafted in such a way that readers will want to keep turning pages. Your book has to pass this test, because the only books that get wonderful word-of-mouth and pass-along from readers are the books people actually finish and enjoy all the way to the end. Subjective? Yes, of course. But if I’m going to represent a book, I need to be able to confidently stand behind it and advocate for it. If I can’t make it to the end, it’s not going to work very well.
I can’t teach you on a blog how to sustain your novel through 300+ pages. It’s trial and error, experience, and studying the craft by taking workshops from great teachers and reading books on crafting fiction (such as The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, or Writing the Break Out Novel by Donald Maass).
The important thing to realize is that getting an agent to request your partial or full is only the first step. After that, you’ve got to keep them reading all the way to the end.
Q4U: Have you found it challenging to keep your story interesting and keep the reader engaged beyond the first few chapters? How did you recognize the problem? What are you doing to solve it?
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent[ Next Post → ] [ ← Previous Post ]