Submit a perfect manuscript, advised a panel of agents and editors at Killer Nashville, a mystery writers’ conference held August 25-28, 2011.
The turmoil in the publishing world has made it even harder to persuade anyone to represent or publish your book. Agents and editors who find imperfections on the first page often dismiss the whole manuscript.
What makes them stop reading? Lots of things, according to agents Jill Marr of Sandra Dijkstra and Jeff Kleinman of Folio and editors Deni Dietz of Five Star and Martin Shepard of Permanent Press. A volunteer read aloud eight first pages submitted by conference participants. Each panelist called “Stop” when the reader reached something unacceptable. The reader finished only one full page.
I’ve grouped the panelists’ stoppers in two categories: mechanics and content.
- Incorrect punctuation, usually a misuse of quotation marks
- Trite phrases, usually similes
- Overuse of adjectives or adverbs
- Weak verbs, particularly forms of to be and the passive voice
- Use of words the panelist regards as markers of poor writing, e.g., shrugged, just, barked (for said)
- Starting several sentences with the same word
- Using unfamiliar terms or abbreviations
- Calling a character by more than one name, e.g., Bill and William
- Overuse of a character’s name in dialogue, usually to remind the reader who’s talking
- Beginning with description instead of action
- Telling, not showing
- Giving unessential information
- Interrupting the narrative with backstory
- Incorrect facts and behavior, usually the character saying or doing something a person in that occupation wouldn’t in real life
- A lack of emotional engagement in the point-of-view character and subsequently the reader
- Giving information from the author’s rather than the character’s point of view, often in dialogue
All of the panelists stressed the importance of that last stopper. Oddly enough, the editors showed more tolerance for lapses than the agents.
All agreed an intriguing opening line could push them past minor faults.