By Rachel Beck
A few months ago, I was on a panel at a conference in which a moderator read authors’ first pages, and the agents on the panel had to raise their hands when they would stop reading and move on to the next. The writers were in the room. And then we had to say why we would have stopped. It sounds really harsh (and definitely made me feel like a Mean Person), but the writers were very grateful for the honesty and feedback. They took it as a valuable learning experience.
So, drawing on that, I thought it could be useful to list my own top five reasons for passing on queries and sample pages in my submissions inbox. It can definitely seem like a brutal business, but hopefully these explanations can prove helpful as you prepare to query agents, or have done so and are wondering why you aren’t getting any requests for more pages.
*Note: The most common reason is probably that the genre is not something I’m looking for, and as all agents’ interests can be found on their websites–mine are here–there’s no excuse for this. So I’m not even going to include this one.
1.) Poor writing/lots of typos: First impressions matter, particularly when querying an agent, because every agent is very busy and receives tons of queries each week. Given this, there’s no time for errors and mistakes in the writing, which should be polished and typo-free. While I’m not a monster and I know that mistakes are human–I’ll forgive a grammar error or two–when it becomes obvious the writer doesn’t have a grasp on the basic mechanics of writing, I’m inclined to think they’re not going to have a good handle on the broader strokes of character, plot, conflict, etc. And there’s no time to muddle through apostrophe mistakes and mixed-up your/you’res to find out.
2.) The writing is too convoluted: Agents can tell when writers are bending over backwards to stand out or impress with their grandiose language and introduction of broad themes and ideas. The query letter or beginning of your story is not the place to contemplate Big Universal Ideas–it’s the place to set up your story and characters and hook the reader. Give us a realistic character in a unique or memorable moment in their life. Hook the reader without resorting to reflecting on bigger themes that go beyond the story. Those can come later. Otherwise, it instantly screams “trying too hard”–and agents can always smell this.
3.) The first paragraph is dull: If I read a first paragraph and find it boring, I’m probably going to stop reading. Again, since agents’ time is so limited, you have to reel them in right away. Too often I see first paragraphs with characters doing things that are too ordinary, which means you’ve started your story in the wrong place. It’s not going to stand out, and if you can’t hook an agent in with a compelling first few sentences, you’re not going to hook an editor, publisher, reader or bookseller either.
4.) The query raises more questions than it answers: I see this a lot. Given the volume of submissions I go through on a given day, it’s not good if I have to read the query twice (or even just a paragraph twice) to make sense of the plot. I understand writers have a tendency to want to be somewhat cryptic in the interest of enticing and raising interest, but keeping it simple and straightforward is best, so the agent has a grasp on what this story is (genre/word count/major themes/plot points/characters) before they dive into the opening pages. If I’m asking questions to myself as I’m reading the query, that’s already a few solid strikes against the story itself before I’ve even looked at it.
5.) The material just isn’t up my alley: This is pretty common too. If a writer has done their homework and knows what genres I’m looking to represent, unfortunately that’s still not a guarantee that I’m going to be automatically drawn to the material. The themes, subject matter or setting could consist of something I’m just not into, that I’ve read too much of lately, that I’ve had a personal bad experience with, etc., etc.–and that’s what makes this business so subjective. It doesn’t say anything about the quality of your writing or the merit of your idea; it just says that I’m not the right agent for this particular story. So definitely do not give up after one rejection, because you could be missing out on the agent who’s looking for exactly the themes and material you’ve written about.
These are the top five reasons I’m likely to stop reading a query or sample pages. I hope highlighting them and explaining a little more helps provide some valuable insight into how agents approach submissions, what they’re looking for you to do well, and what they’re looking for as red flags. In short, do your homework on the agent you’re submitting to, make sure the writing is clean and typo-free, and make sure you’re explaining your story and characters in a clear, concise and gripping way. Then the requests for more pages will start flying in!