The idea of every word you write is to pull the reader to the next word. Each sentence has to drag them to the next sentence. Each chapter to the next chapter. And so on, and so forth.
Our jobs, as writers, is to keep readers reading.
And no reader is more important, initially, than an agent.
When you send your work to an agent you need to grab them by the scruff of the collar and keep them hooked until they reach the end. Your agent and you will work in partnership and it’s key that they love and believe in your book as much as you do.
But first? You have to keep them reading.
Wouldn’t it be great, I hear you ask, if we could tell when an agent would stop reading our novel? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could foresee this and put all the edits in place before we send over our manuscripts?
Well… I have good news.
The Stockholm Writer’s Festival did an event this year called Literary Idol. They collected first pages from everyone (or I assume everyone, the pile was sizeable!) and they read them out to a panel of agents who each put their hands up at the point they would stop reading.
Now obviously some of the genres weren’t a match for the agent’s house, but that wasn’t the question. The question was where they would stop reading.
And the reasons that came up each time were similar.
So I’m going to share them with you all so that we can all make sure our manuscripts are polished, shiny and cliche-free by the time they hit the inbox with our queries.
1. Don’t start with the weather
It’s been done to death
2. Don’t include any cliches in at least the first 10k words
Cliches are hard to avoid because the words just feel so right next to one another. Brooks babble, tears well and people love grinning from ear to ear. But Agents don’t want to read the same books they’ve been reading for years, they want you to do the hard work and think of new, unique ways of describing things humans have described for years and years.
3. Don’t change your tone midway through
Don’t start off in comedy and then turn your prose into something that could be taken from Austen. Likewise, don’t start with flowery prose and move into something sharp and scathing. Pick your tone and stick with it. No-one likes to feel lured into a story with one voice and then sent away from it with another.
4. Don’t include a scene break too early
The first few pages of your novel are setting the stage. We need to know where we are, when we are, who with are with and why we should care about these characters. So don’t introduce your entire cast in three pages and don’t scene jump in the first couple of thousand words. It’s jarring for the reader and it’ll undo all your hard work.
5. Make it clear what’s happening
A little bit of vagueness can be fun. The reader sets off like a detective, trying to piece together what’s happening. But keep them in the dark too long, or (worse) keeping them in what only you think is the dark is just as bad. Don’t be afraid to stake a claim in your openers and tell us where we are and what’s going on. This isn’t something your reader should be guessing past the first page.
6. Don’t include too much description
Now I know I just said that you need to set the scene in your opening. But less is more. If you protagonist looks like Brad Pitt, then that’s great, but don’t describe his physical attributes at length. Think of one or two physical signatures and stick to those – let your readers fill in the rest. Long, unwieldy paragraphs of description were one of the first places hands flew up.
7. Get the story moving
We know where we are. We know who we’re with. Now we want to know what’s going to happen. Don’t dangle your story like a carrot on a stick and then keep snatching it back every time we get close. You want to get your story moving as quickly as possible, as it’s your plot that’s going to grip your readers (and potential new agent) alike.