letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 174
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 0
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: N/A
queries in queue to be read: 400+
oldest query in queue: 8/20/09

“It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.”

-Josh Olson, screenwriter A History of Violence. From an article in the Village Voice about how he will not read your effing script.

Guess he would find our first five pages allowance for queries far too generous. Some people would agree. Some people say it’s not enough. There’s at least a few who reply to my responses every week to explain that I can’t possibly make a decision without reading their book, usually in its entirety. Too ironically, they are often the people who didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to include those pages as per our guidelines to begin with. It’s even worse when they mention getting contact information at agentquery.com or our website where those materials are explicitly requested. I never quite understand how they manage that.

What do you think? How many pages does it take to decide if you want to read more? Not to decide that it’s perfect or the most life-changing story you’ve ever read…. But just to know whether there’s enough there for you to think you – or others – might want to read it….

And, while we’re at it, what do you think of the rest of the article?

Other out-takes:

“…not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.”

“You are not owed a read from a professional, even if you think you have an in, and even if you think it’s not a huge imposition. It’s not your choice to make.”

Happy weekend!

63 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. “…not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.”
    I fear that all too often you can’t discourage someone who isn’t a writer, either. 🙂

  2. I read quickly, so… Hm. I think I got around 5-10 pages into a romance book I was browsing in the supermarket. (Fat one, too.) I was intrigued enough to keep going, but then… She’s been handed this Last Letter From Her Dead Husband (whom she’s just found out didn’t die when she was told he died), and… puts it away because she got distracted. The attempt to exploit the tension (what will the letter say!?!) seemed very artificial, and I put the book down.
    I will say that… Hm. For a not-yet-in-print book, there are times when it might be a good idea for someone to read further, to catch instances of: “You needed to write that first chapter to get a feel for the world. Now you need to chop that first chapter because it’s slow and draggy and the reader doesn’t need the data presented in that way.” But I don’t claim that’s the agent’s job when reading slush, however nice it would be to have it happen.
    I wonder if that’s afflicting some of the “you need to read X more of the book!” authors… Not the ones who want the whole book read, of course, but the ones who don’t realize that, y’know, if it “gets good” at chapter 5, maybe they should start with chapter 5.
    (But not by cutting back and forth with flashbacks, necessarily. I gave up in the middle of a book that had this huge flashback, where obviously Things Were Going To Go To Hell (or else the opening scenes wouldn’t be what they were), but of course We Didn’t Know That Then. I wanted to either have this presented in linear fashion, where It All Going To Hell wasn’t a foregone conclusion, or I wanted to start the story where it started and find out how the protagonist was going to get out of the situation he was in at the first chapter. Any flashback that takes more than a few paragraphs, at most, is liable to lose me. This includes that Romeo&Juliet song on the radio, which at least is pretty, though the words irritate the vulgarity out of me.)

  3. I’ll almost always give a (published) book 10 pages. If at 10 pages I’m not convinced, I’m putting it back down. (Exceptions include a few cases where I’ve determined *very* quickly that somehow a copy editor did not get to touch this manuscript.)
    From my limited slush and contest reading experience, though, I think I can almost always tell within the first page or so. Not for sure one way or the other, but such that there are the pile that can be set aside after the first page and then there are the ones that need to be read to know how I feel about them. I don’t think anything has ever recovered from a bad first-page impression in those cases.

  4. I dunno, I think he could’ve said what he *really* thought!
    Lousy books are obvious within the first few paragraphs or pages.
    The tricky ones, are those where the author has the *technical* aspects of writing down well, but falls down on setting up a credible sequence of events or maintaining a consistent voice or remembering what genre they’re in or supporting really believable characters.
    Those can take a while to confirm – thirty pages and fifty-three pages, for the two examples I can think of offhand. And they annoy me a lot more than the obviously bad ones, because of the disappointment.

    • I once read a book — because I was in a situation where I had the book and I was bored stiff otherwise — where it was the last 42 or 43 pages (I counted, but it’s been 20 years) where I actually did not actively despise the narrating character. She found a niche she liked, she came to terms with her situation, and she stopped being a sniveling dishrag. For the last 40ish pages.
      The other 150-200 pages or whatever it was were dreck.
      (Then I read a later book in the series and wanted to beat the author with a weed whacker because he felt the need to summarize the past 15 pages every 5 pages or so (again, I counted), and the book was about three times the size of the first because of it.)

  5. I used to think that if a book had gotten published, it must have some merit. I got over it. Since I rarely read unpublished manuscripts, I can’t speak to them. I’d say that two or three pages very often is enough to know whether I should spend my time with the rest of the book. And yes, there are published works that I’ve gotten a hundred pages into and discovered that the author has lost the thread of the story. And then I close the book.

    • For a book to be published the publisher must have thought they can sell enough copies to make back their investment plus get back a small profit. Otherwise they *won’t* publish things.
      Quite often books have merits for an audience that does not include me – because I don’t care for the books strengths, and I am annoying by the things those books don’t do well. But that’s me. I might wish to walk into a bookstore and find more books suited to *my* tastes (in fact, I _do_), but that doesn’t mean published books worthless.
      I can *usually* tell a) whether a book is well written, and b) whether I will like it within the first page. But the books that are perfectly competent and which I might like if I like the characters/worldbuilding/story are impossible to tell from those that are perfectly competent and that I dislike for each or any of those elements – I need to actually read those.

  6. It depends. Some books, I don’t make it off the first page. Other books, I stick it out for a couple of chapters (and I’m often grabbed by the time I get there.)
    Then there are some books that I threw down after reading a few paragraphs, only to pick them up later and get hooked on the story. Others, I force myself to keep reading in the hopes that they’ll get better, and they never do. ::shrug::
    I say, you have to do what works best for you.

  7. For published books by authors unfamiliar to me that I’m considering in the bookstore, I usually read the back cover copy first. If that passes muster, I read the first page. If that passes muster I flip to a random page about 1/3 of the way through the book.
    For non-published stuff at workshops or whatever, I usually have an opinion in about two paragraphs. It’s rare (not unprecedented, but rare) that I have to adjust the opinion up or down when I’m done reading.
    How long does it usually take you to make a decision?

    • I have to agree with this comment. As I don’t get a lot of unpublished work (save for my writers’ group), most of my suppositions are based on the cover blurb. If the book doesn’t have one or if the book has a poor one, I put the book down. The only exceptions are authors I know, have read and have enjoyed reading.
      Using this methodology, it’s rare that I actually purchase a book and don’t finish reading it. If the first chapter turns out to be predictible or “dreck”, I will ditch the book. But usually, those books don’t make it past my “blurb” filtering.
      Regarding the people who think “If I can just get Agent X to read the rest of the book”… I used to read cartoon fanfiction on FanFic.net. One of the things that always peeved me was the summaries that said “I suck at summaries. Story is much better inside.” Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the same thing. My POV? Well, if you don’t like my book, there’s still the chance someone else does. If I go through every single agent available and still don’t get a nibble, I’ve obviously done something wrong.
      Either that, or I should have gone the “fad” route and written that vampire story after all, instead of the epic fantasy one. @=)

  8. How long does it take? It honestly can take a sentence or two–not to judge the whole manuscript, but to judge whether or not this particular manuscript is ready. If the author hasn’t gotten that almighty first paragraph to its absolute best, what are the chances that the rest is any better? In fact, it’s probably much worse.
    I am certain there are great stories being passed on for many reasons, including that they still need more attention than an agent can currently give them. Considering the ratio of manuscripts:publishing slots in the world, agents and publishers simply don’t have the time it would take to work with all the less than prepared writers with potentially great stories; not when there are literally hundreds of manuscripts that are READY for the attention of said professionals.
    I cringe whenever I hear of someone arguing with an agent over the merits of their work. Sometimes, a manuscript just isn’t right for that particular agent or publisher. Thems the breaks. And sometimes, the story is just not quite there. Maybe it will be given the time and the attention, but agents just don’t have that many hours in a day.

  9. Thank heavens! You’ll finally be getting to my query next week!

  10. I thought that the article was written by an arrogant coward. The core message is fine, but the article stinks. It was like an excuse for a rant, and a reason to get back at someone because he feels slighted at having to read a synopsis. Obviously, the guy who wrote the synopsis is a beginner and made beginner mistakes, but so what? Most good agent blogs that I read never trash beginning writers.

    • Most good agent blogs that I read never trash beginning writers.
      He didn’t either, if you read the article. He agonized for three weeks over how to say, in a respectful fashion, what was true about the script–to someone who had asked for honesty.
      And his reward was having that fellow trash-talk him to mutual acquaintances.
      …a reason to get back at someone because he feels slighted at having to read a synopsis.
      Again, that’s not what he said. He didn’t feel “slighted” (i.e. insulted), he said he felt imposed upon.
      And after doing someone a massive favour, then getting verbally abused behind his back for it, I rather think Mr. Olsen was imposed upon.

      • Of course he was imposed upon! His core statement wasn’t the issue. I did read the article, and I commented on it in the website. I didn’t like it. He did trash the writer by writing the article in the manner in which he wrote it. Obviously, the guy is going to read the article.
        “And his reward was having that fellow trash-talk him to mutual acquaintances.”
        I don’t know if you’re a writer, but I am. And my first few reactions to rejections where similar to the acquaintance. In fact, every published writer I know reacted similarly starting out. Olsen did, too, it’s human nature.
        After a short while, writers learn to never ask for professional opinion of their work unless the two are fast friends. But the poor guy that approached Olsen couldn’t have learned that. And Olsen should have known better, too. Olsen, as a professional, should have known what the reaction would be.
        It’s like when some of the blogging agents decided to do queryfail. It served no purpose, other than to spawn agentfail, which also served no purpose. It’s a profession. Beginners make dumb mistakes. So do some professionals, and my point is that Olsen made a mistake by writing the article. Not in his core message, but in the delivery.

        • Yes, I am a writer also, and I respectfully disagree, because I think Mr. Would-you-read-my-script? deserved to be trashed.
          Your argument is that Mr. Olsen was mean, in a very public way, to someone.
          The problem is, the other writer started it.
          I agree all beginning writers are overly-sensitive, but bad-mouthing someone who tried to help you is not a matter of sensitivity: it’s spite. Feeling hurt is one thing; trying to hurt the other person back is malice.
          What Mr. Olsen did was also dastardly, but it was provoked.
          Olsen, as a professional, should have known what the reaction would be.
          Please check the article again. Mr. Olsen did say he knew better than to read the script, but that he felt pressured by social niceties to make an exception.
          …my point is that Olsen made a mistake by writing the article. Not in his core message, but in the delivery.
          You’re saying Mr. Olsen, because he makes a living as a writer, is never allowed to be publicly cranky. I don’t buy that. For one thing, writers (and agents, for that matter) are allowed to be human. For another, writers are supposed to express themselves, and to do so honestly and clearly. Mr. Olsen did a fine job of that, and so I think his article a success, not a mistake.

          • Respectfully, your opinion is yours. I am not now, nor will ever be rude to a reader, period. There are a lot of things to be publicly cranky about. Tila Tequila, the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the Chicago Cubs, and so on. There is no shortage of things to gripe about.
            Writers and agents are certainly allowed to be human. But, if they are professionals, then they are supposed to be a little above the novices.
            I have a very small and humble local amount of fame here, and I’ve had people offer me their work for an opinion. Unless we are very good friends (which is a rarity because – in complete disagreement with Olson – I don’t think that professional writers are also the best critics), I politely decline. I tell them that my opinion wouldn’t mean a damned thing, either way, because I’m not in a position to buy or sell their work.
            I am, however, more than happy to point them in the direction of publications and internet sites that could better accomplish what they desire. This is what Olson should have done, and the article was written by him not because some novice sought an opportunity he shouldn’t have, but because Olson made the mistake in the first place.
            My opinion, but since that’s what the blog author asked for, I give it freely.

            • I think we’ll have to agree to disagree, but I’ll note that these two statements:
              …my point is that Olsen made a mistake by writing the article.
              …the article was written by him not because some novice sought an opportunity he shouldn’t have, but because Olson made the mistake in the first place.
              …poke at slightly different things. In the first, you say the article was a mistake. In the second, you say the mistake was Olsen accepting the script in the first place.
              I’ll agree with your second comment–he probably should have said no, and Mr. Olsen admitted as much in the article–but I do still think the article was a success. For one thing, it provoked passionate responses, which good writing should do!

    • Agents aren’t trashing beginning writers for sending them their writing because agents are asking to see their writing. Obviously not them as specific people, but having websites up that say, “Go ahead and send me part of what you’ve written” means that they’re not gonna be that upset when people actually send part of what they’ve written.
      A closer correlation would be when agents are asked by friends/acquaintances/strangers on the street to read their work. Because then it becomes personal, rather than business, and that sucks. How can you give an honest, objective answer without risking insulting the person? Unless you know them really well and know that they take criticism as a great way to improve their work, that risk is there. So you have to be nice, even to strangers on the street, because you can’t have people thinking you’re a mean agent. Josh Olson’s career doesn’t depend on writers sending their work to them, so he can afford to be blunt. Agents can’t.

      • “How can you give an honest, objective answer without risking insulting the person?”
        You can’t, at least, not to someone starting out as a writer. After the tenth rejection, the writer learns. I expect to be rejected, it’s part of the process, and I don’t hand out even a single page to someone unless they are in the direct position to sell it. My argument is that Olson (I keep misspelling his name in here), knows this going in, and the acquaintance doesn’t.
        Olson has two choices at that point, either politely decline, or accept knowing the consequences. In my opinion, and it’s my opinion, his article is beyond blunt, it’s cowardly. He’s exacting some sort of revenge on the poor guy. Beginning writers don’t always know that writing is a business, just like any other profession, and professionalism dictates that you don’t ask someone to read your stuff just because the opportunity presents itself. But neither should the professional react as if he was never a beginner himself.

        • Well, I don’t think ignorance is really an excuse for beginner writers, because the information is freely there. It’s like some people in the U.S. not being able to point to Iran on a map; sure it might be human nature not to care about anything outside your own little bubble, but that doesn’t make their ignorance any more acceptable. There are plenty (in fact, I’d say the vast majority) of beginner writers who understand right away that it’s rude to thrust their work on anybody, and certainly not strangers.
          And it’s funny that your argument is that he shouldn’t have written the article that way because beginner writers don’t know any better. What better way for them to learn than from a no-bs article like this one?

      • How can you give an honest, objective answer without risking insulting the person?
        Some people are insulted by anything short of ‘this is wondeful, I must show it to my agent/publish it’. Those people are idiots, and that’s their problem, not yours.
        You have wasted a year of your life writing this book’ is likely to annoy every single one of the rest, even if it’s the critter’s honest opinion – because there is nothing objective (much less constructive) about that statement. Reactions to other statements may vary, but ‘an honest critique’ is not an excuse for rudeness, though some people hide behind that.

  11. I’m painfully aware that the first five sentences are enough to kill a book. Still not sure what to do about mine.
    But yeah, Josh has some good points… sadly.

  12. I’ve put a book down in the bookstore after 2-3 pages. Not a lot, but if I’m not interested by then, I put it back and try another one.

  13. I actually kept statistics on my reading habits last year, and on average, if I was going to put down a book without finishing it, I did so by page 10.
    There was one book I got over 50 pages into because it was good, but not my cup of tea, and one book that I tossed across the room after page 1 because it was just so brain-searingly purple. In general, however, the writer had 10 pages in which to convince me.
    By the way, that article rocked. Thanks for linking it!

  14. I think you can tell the quality of someone’s writing by just a few short sentences, which is probably what a lot of agents look for first when they’re trying to blow through their slush, but I don’t beleive you can judge a story by that much, or a writer’s ability to craft one. I’ve read a lot of books that got off to a slow start, only to really hit a stride and suck me in.
    So, I suppose I really do agree with the quote. It doesn’t take more than a page to tell someone can write, whether or not they can craft a whole workable story is another matter.

  15. I’m pretty active on an online critique forum and it takes me no more than a sentence or two to determine if a writer falls into the “so bad you shouldn’t encourage them” category. Maybe this is because I have a background in proofreading and editing, I don’t know. I don’t care how good your idea is; like Josh Olson says, if you can’t string together a coherent sentence, you’re not a writer. Although I thought he was a little liberal with his use of the F-word in his article, I agreed with just about everything he said.

  16. I’d say it depends what sort of material you typically read, whether you give it two pages or twenty.
    Your average readers typically read just the stuff on the library and bookstore shelves that have gone through a sieve of agents, editors, copyeditors, and more. If that’s all they’ve read, I bet most of them would say, “No, you need a few chapters or even the entire book” because published books tend to have more abstract issues wrong with them that don’t come out after reading one, or even ten, pages. You have to read a few chapters to figure out what’s wrong with them, or even the entire book.
    But once you start going through slush, there’s a far greater variation in talent. And in that, yes, you can tell by the first page if the writer is someone you want to take a second look at, because a lot of people have difficulties A) with stringing a coherent sentence together and B) being interesting and creative. Just wander over to fanfiction.net, find your favorite author, and read the fanfics set in their world…don’t try to cherry-pick, just read the first few in order so you get a taste of an average sampling. Most (although not all) is pure crap, and I suspect it might resemble what a slush pile would look like. The ones who can string sentences together stand out like stars.

  17. It only takes one bite to know you have a shit sandwich.
    But a meal can still be awful without loading down your plate from the litter box. So my response to the “one line” thing is “Sure, but…”
    And I think real writers can be easily discouraged. I don’t want to hear from people who take it upon themselves to discourage others.
    FYI, I “knew” Josh Olson from the Wordplay message boards, and this is pretty standard stuff from him.

    • “I don’t want to hear from people who take it upon themselves to discourage others.”
      Really, this is it in a nutshell. After the first few sentences of Olson’s rant, I was very put off. Olson didn’t like the guy’s synopsis, so what? He told the guy so, in so many words, and the guy reacted negatively. Again, so what? Everyone acted negatively the first few times they were rejected.
      Throwing F-bombs around like Howard Stern is bush.

  18. I thought this was a great article, and really, something only writers and editors or publishing/producing folks would understand. I also think that not only in queries but in bookstores and libraries and life – you get one chance to make a first impression. If your first few pages don’t have an agent wishing there was more in that initial email, either you have the wrong agent reading it or it is no good. I have to be captured from the get-go and must be recaptured on each page to continue turning.
    I look forward to one day sending pages to agents – to get my foot in the door would mean that the beginning of my book has to sell it. To get all the way through the door means the rest of the book must follow suit.
    This guy must have read some awful stuff in his day. You get jaded. I want to print out the article and tape it to the wall.
    It reminds me of when people tell me what I should write about. Thanks, but no.
    Amy Sue Nathan

  19. I can tell whether I’ll like a book in the first page because that’s what pulls me in. Sometimes I’ll give a few more pages, but if I’m not hooked soon, I lose interest.
    Granted, I have read books that were boring because I wanted to know what ‘all the hype’ was about.
    It doesn’t take long to realize whether it’s good or if it sucks.

  20. I always thought five pages was very generous. If I read the first page of a book and I’m not gripped, I put it down. (To be honest, I rarely go further than a couple paragraphs without already knowing.)

  21. I think he makes a lot of good comments, but his tone is horrible and casts him in a bad light. Some writers can get away with that–Neil Gaiman [George R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch]–but most can’t.

  22. No, I don’t think professionals owe you anything, but I suspect that acknowledging that makes them more likely to be generous towards you – or at the very least to be grateful that you are behaving professionally.
    Recent example: at a literary event I ended up meeting an agent. The conversation:
    Me: Oh, which agency are you with?
    Her: You’re a writer, then?
    Me: Yes, but I promise not to pitch you.
    …at which point she asked what my ms was about.
    And honestly, if she’d just said ‘I’m with the Thundercat Agency’ I’d have said ‘oh’ and mentally put her on my query list without further discussion, because she didn’t owe me any comments on my writing.
    In the end, she didn’t comment on the proposal itself (other than to point out that I certainly wasn’t doing something easy) but she did suggest another author who did the same sort of general thing in a really effective way. Which was helpful! So she’s now way up on my query list, because someone who treats newbies that way is worth having as an agent (yes, she can make sales too).

  23. I’d say the one page litmus test is pretty accurate. Bad writing tends to spring the ambush right away. There’s also a lot of “journeyman level” writing – stuff that gets the job done in a linear, unimaginative way. Encountering that, I’ll plow through the first 5 to 10 pages to see if the story or characters will grab me. I’m usually decided by then. Good writing resonates, captivates.
    The idea that anyone would query without reading/following guidelines is pretty astonishing to me, as is the thought someone ‘owes’ you a reading. Mistakes are one thing – deliberate ignorance is another. Tap the ‘delete’ button and move on.
    Thanks again for wading through the drek and mumblespeak panning for diamonds.

  24. Over at Miss Snark’s First Victim, in the contest just ending, writers submitted no more than 250 words, the equivalent of one page. An agent reviewed them all and designated which she’d keep reading – and of course all readers could view them and comment.
    For really bad writing, one page is more than enough. Some you need a bit more (five pages sounds good) to determine if the manuscript shows promise.
    Of the 51 entrants, three were manuscripts the agent had actually been queried on and requested, and had rejected.
    So of course you can’t tell for sure until the end.
    But if it starts out horribly, it’s not gonna end well.

    • to determine if the manuscript shows promise.
      There’s a whole range of promise. And much of that depends on whether you are in a position where you want to buy the mss right now (and want to do as little editing as possible, respectively spend your editing time to polish something that already works), whether you’re looking to build a writer’s career (this mss might be so-so-but-promising, but you want to see more), or whether you’re a writing teacher/mentor who feels that they can bring out the best in the writer because you understand the issues. That still means the writer needs to cooperate and work at it, but they’re very different approaches.

  25. I’d say five was enough.

  26. In three to five pages, it’s more than obvious not only if someone can write, but if they’ve got a sense of how to tell a story. Then it’s a question of is the story any good–does it work (and that may take more pages, becasue some stories are just slow to warm up and start).
    But I think it’s sort of the way an actor walks onto the stage and says a few lines–you kind of know what you’re getting right there. There’s a certainty to the performance–or not.
    Or a dancer. In a few moves, you get a good idea of the core skills, the technique trained into the body. You see it.
    But perhaps the real problem here is one affecting many industries–there’s very few places for a writer to learn to be a better writer. And to learn to be self-critical enough to look at your own work and know what’s up with it. There’s the big leagues, and that’s about it. The magazines are mostly gone, there’s a few zines, and I’m not sure there are any classes where a writer can work and learn, and then get good advice (as in, this needs major revision before you submit, dear). Everything is so fast, but it still takes a long time to learn basic skills.
    So, writers go after the opinion of those in the industry, thinking that’s the soruce. And that’s not always a wise thing. Not if you lack the skills to survive out there.
    And, of course, this leads to a core issue–the trouble with self-delusion is that you don’t know when you’re doing it.

  27. When I started judging RWA contests, I gained a healthy respect for agents/editors/poor slob interns forced to read slush. I know within PARAGRAPHS whether or not I want to read on. Sometimes the writing is pure dreck, while other times I’m enchanted with the world the author has created. It matters less to me if the contest entrant has a ‘perfect’ submission because most of the time the perfect entry has no voice, while other times the entry with the voice needs to study the craft of writing.
    Of course, I would much rather read the diamonds in the rough than the technically perfect submission. Oh, and those that are pure dreck? I’d love to send a note saying that I wasn’t right for that submission, but as a judge I have an obligation to give my educated opinion according to the score sheet provided by the contest.
    Five pages is an ample amount of material to judge an author’s writing style and story.

  28. I love it. I’m sure so many people are dying for Josh Olson–screenwriter for such classics as Infested: Invasion of the Killer Bugs–to read their script.

    • *rolls eyes*
      I think a few would be dying for Josh Olson–screenwriter for A History of Violence, which was nominated for two Academy Awards–to read their work.
      What, you’ve never typed a word of dreck in your life? Everything you’ve ever written has been brilliant?

  29. Letters from the Query Wars
    It’s immediately apparent if someone can write – usually within the first paragraph. It is voice, plot, pacing and character that are at issue. And those qualities are not always evident in the first 5 pages.
    But I agree – if a writer can’t follow simple submission instructions, why would an agent/publisher assume that writer is capable of making any necessary edits or even understanding the importance of a deadline?

  30. > What do you think?
    Josh Olson is basically right.
    You can usually smell a bad writer in the first sentence. You can see a bad writer by the first paragraph.
    A good writer hooks you on the first page. A great writer hooks you on the first sentence.

  31. The out-takes Jennifer posted? Right on the money.
    The rest of the article? Much like the purported script. Tells a story that the author thinks is extremely important, very poorly.
    Granted, Josh did not take months or years with the product. And in the process of writing movie scripts, or articles for the Voice, unlike the writing of novels, you CAN try to browbeat the reader into believing that something is interesting by mindlessly repeating the word “fuck” over and over.
    But in the end, this is something he should have seen coming a mile away. He has no one to blame but himself. No one put a gun to his head to read that script; and if he spent half as much time on it as he claims he did, then he’s most certainly correct that he DID fall down on his professional obligations.
    Why anyone would want to publicize a story on how they messed up so bad is completely beyond me. It’s bizarre.

  32. I think five pages is generous. As a reader, I go to B&N, where there are maybe 1000 books in the genres that might interest me. We’ll discount 90% of them as being
    1) by authors I didn’t like
    2) already read
    3) of topics that put me off (Please, please, oh please! no more vampires! It’s so bad I dread the SF section.)
    That leaves 100 books vying for my attention. If I’m having an high book-lust day, I might pick up 10 and read the first page. Of those, I might find three where I read beyond page 3. Now I will shuffle through my pile. Which ones look like they might be stories I’ll remember a year from now? At least one of those three will get put back. Another will get put back when I realize that it didn’t have the quality of writing I’m looking for.
    You’re a pro. Doubtless you can see all of what I’m seeing in one page. And by your stats, you’re asking for partials on maybe half of what I’ll consider buying. Which means you’re a lot more discerning.
    Which leaves me to ponder, “What do you hope to find when you take the time to read all five pages?”

  33. Agent Query
    “I never quite understand how they manage that.”
    It happens because they don’t click through to your full profile to see your guidelines. If they just search for your name, a partial bio comes up, but from it they get your email address and that you are accepting queries – and then its off to the races without checking further.

  34. In a bookstore
    In a bookstore I can be tougher than any agent I would like to query. A few words would catch my eye, or not. I hope this isn’t bad karma for my query letters.

  35. Page Count
    I give the writer three pages. I read the first page, and then the first pages of chapters two and three. A lot of writers can dangle a hook, but then so many fail to set it.
    Those three pages tell me everything I need to know. If they don’t engage, if I have to work to penetrate what should be the writer’s most gripping scenes — if they don’t dangle and set the hook — then bloody hell, what hope is there for the rest of it?
    Life’s too short for fiction that doesn’t want me to read it.

  36. *de-lurks*
    *waves shyly* Hi, I wandered over here from ‘s journal…not an aspiring author, just an amateur one that loves reading about the behind-the-scenes side of the business. (I wish I could be a professional reader, but I think I missed that boat. 🙂
    Because of that, I tend not to pipe up, but your question resonated with something that actually happened to me recently, so I wanted to respond:
    What do you think? How many pages does it take to decide if you want to read more? Not to decide that it’s perfect or the most life-changing story you’ve ever read…. But just to know whether there’s enough there for you to think you – or others – might want to read it….
    I’ve never really paid attention to how many pages it takes to grab me in a book I like, but I recently picked up an unknown book by a well established author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) that I’d read and enjoyed books by before. I think I’d barely started the third page when I closed the book and put it down in disgust.
    So. Three. Just like a Tootsie Pop.

  37. That was a wonderful essay.
    Through my membership in Critters, I’ve critiqued a large number of short story and novel manuscripts. It’s not easy. Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands and send back a note: “Please take up pottery.”
    For me, it’s not a matter of wanting to read on, it’s a matter of wanting to stop. Some first pages make my eyes bleed. Some are passable, and it’s only the second page that invokes the gag reflex.
    Wanting to read on? I have to find something in the first one or two pages that hooks me, and getting to it can’t involve slogging through bad grammar or the results of spell czech.
    — Ulysses

  38. The first paragraph should grab you. If it doesn’t, the writer hasn’t polished her manuscript enough.
    Five pages is really generous. My only issue with the multiple page limits is leaving a reader in the middle of an uncompleted scene. Somehow I feel that’s unprofessional, and see if there’s a scene break the page before.
    What do you think?

  39. Regarding Olsen’s tone, he’s obviously sniveled at being called a “dick” or some other anatomical reference, and is venting. Seems like its a regular occurrence. His F-bombs and attitude leave me underwhelmed, but I’m convinced he’s got valid points.
    I think he should have taken a couple deep breaths and counted to ten before using his industry position to showcase his immaturity.
    But hey, what do I know? I’m just an aspiring novelist.

  40. How many pages…
    Over the years my attitude has changed regarding how many pages agents or editors should ask us to send. My former response would have been at least ten…now I think five is plenty. I’d still _like_ to send 50 so the reader can get a real sense for the story, but that’s what the synopsis is for. And I’d love the reader to read “the good part” in chapter two – but that’s what re-writing is for – to hook the reader up front. If we can’t hook the agent and editor, how can we expect to hook a consumer?
    Yes – I’ll give a book I’m buying a few more pages and a chance to get into it – but usually only from an author I already trust. If I don’t like something and don’t know the author I tend not to struggle with it.
    I agree with the quote that it only takes a line (let’s say a paragraph) to know if someone can write. Professionals can see that at a glance – your friends might not be able to. And with fewer pages for the pros to read, the more queries they can get to!
    Thanks for the interesting article.

  41. When to stop
    Generally, a page, sometimes less, sometimes more, but it’s the voice I tend to connect with quickly or not. Plain poor writing doesn’t even take a page. The ones that are a disappointment are the ones that lose it later in the book, where the story falls flat or the characters become annoying. As for those who complain, if it takes reading the whole book to think it’s worthwhile, you’ve done something wrong. It should be interesting from the start.

  42. I got about fifty or sixty pages back (clicking the Previous 20 link) reading over your Query Wars posts. I’m about halfway to the query point (I wrote my first novel back in June, and as per the advice of Janet Reid, wrote another novel in July before I even considered writing a query out for the first one) in that I’m editing that first novel now, while still trying to keep up with agents/editors blogs about what they’re looking for and submissions guidelines and all that other fun stuff.
    I had a question, one that’s occurred to me several times but I don’t think I’ve actually gotten around to asking it yet.
    I’ll set it up hypothetically. I query my first novel, a fantasy, to you, and you accept it and agree to represent me. My second novel is a genre you don’t represent. What should I do with it? I know it’s unacceptable to query multiple agents at the same time (not to mention, rude, which is in my opinion, even worse) but is it against the Having-An-Agent-Rules to query a second agent for a second (or third or fourth or nine hundred and fifteenth) novel, if Agent #1 doesn’t accept it?
    … I’m getting longwinded. If that made no sense, I apologise.
    Which brings me to another point. My first novel is currently with a close friend who is also miles above me in terms of skill and repertoire. I’m American by birth, but I’m prone to use British spellings and words (IE, I nearly wrote “I’m a bit of a blether” instead of “I’m getting long-winded” – it means the same, but most Americans would look at ‘blether’ and give me a look somewhat similar to Oo) The aforementioned friend said that the first thing she did when she printed out my novel was go through and highlight all of my Britishisms. Would something like that affect whether or not a query/partial is accepted or rejected?

  43. After having actually gone through and read the comments on this post (rather than just interjecting at the most convenient point with an agenda of my own) I have a few things to say that are ‘on topic.’
    I have a few favourite writers, the ones that when I see their name on the cover, I buy the book without even turning it over to read the back. Robin McKinley is one such, and I happened upon her novel Sunshine in a local bookstore, and bought it immediately without even knowing what it was about.
    I took it home, opened it up, and couldn’t get past the first four or five pages. I didn’t hate them, they weren’t badly written, it wasn’t that I wasn’t interested – it was just that the style the book is written in is suggestive of an interview in which you’re actually sitting down with the MC as she recounts her adventures, and she goes off on long tangents about her family and home life. Not back-story – not an infodump – but just the same as if someone were telling you about where they work, and who they work with. Their coworkers might be interesting, but they’re essentially strangers, and their stories, while amusing, aren’t enough to sit through. A few months later I found myself in a new home with nothing to do, so I sat down, picked Sunshine back up, waded through the tangents, and got through the entire book in one evening.
    I’ve since read it so many times that the spine is nothing but creases and white lines, and when I open it and set it down (rather than using a bookmark) it lays flat against the desk/bed/floor/whatever-flat-surface-I’m-closest-to.
    So while it’s entirely possible to know within a few pages whether or not a book will hook you, it’s not a rule. Nothing about those first few pages was in itself boring, or badly written – just a little tedious. And Robin McKinley remains today one of my all-time favourite authors.

  44. How many pages…
    Pages needed to realize I’m in the presence of unreadable tripe: less than 2.
    Pages needed to realize I’m in the presence of a competently written piece that’s worth finishing: sometimes 20-50. Unless it’s unreadable tripe I’ll usually continue for at least 50 pages.
    Pages needed to realize I’m in the presence of pure genius: this can be as few as 3 or as many as 30. You must know that wonderful moment when you realize a book you’ve just been enjoying in a normal kind of way is going to make your month. I have been known to jump up and yell.

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