Why Literary Agents Stop Reading a Manuscript


Got this in the mail. Livia Blackburne summarized the following points on why literary agents stop reading a manuscript at the Boston Book Fest. The method used was unique: an actress picked manuscripts at random (from the slush pile I guess) and read 250 words and agents from a panel would their hands when they felt they would stop reading. Then they explain why they would stop reading. Hope this makes sense to writers struggling to make themselves lucid amidst a hundred other concerns while writing.

1. Generic beginnings: Stories that opened with the date or the weather didn’t really inspire interest. According to Harmsworth, you are only allowed to start with the weather if you’re writing a book about meteorologists. Otherwise, pick something more creative.

2. Slow beginnings: Some manuscripts started with too much pedestrian detail (characters washing dishes, etc) or unnecessary background information.

3. Trying too hard: Sometimes it seemed like a writer was using big words or flowery prose in an attempt to sound more sophisticated. In several cases, the writer used big words incorrectly. Awkward or forced imagery was also a turnoff. At one point, the panelists raised their hands when a character’s eyes were described as “little lubricated balls moving back and forth.”

4. TMI (Too Much Information): Overly detailed description of bodily functions or medical examinations had the panelists begging for mercy.

5. Clichés: “The buildings were ramrod straight.” “The morning air was raw.” “Character X blossomed into Y.” “A young woman looks into the mirror and tells us what she sees.” Clichés are hard to avoid, but when you revise, go through and try to remove them.

6. Loss of Focus: Some manuscripts didn’t have a clear narrative and hopped disjointedly from one theme to the next.

7. Unrealistic internal narrative: Make sure a character’s internal narrative—what the character is thinking or feeling—matches up with reality. For example, you wouldn’t want a long eloquent narration of what getting strangled feels like—the character would be too busy gasping for breath and passing out. Also, avoid having the character think about things just for the sake of letting the reader know about them.

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