Thursday, December 15, 2016

How far did you read?

 I'm curious if in general agents will always read the whole manuscript, or do you stop once you are sure it is not something you can represent or sell? For example when reading my manuscript did the lack of substantial plot in the first 50 pages stop you from reading any further? I have gotten a lot of feedback similar to yours, something like 'it’s a great voice but the story didn’t hold my attention well enough’ so I am curious if it is possible that no one, outside my Beta readers, got to the end of the book. I have some thoughts on how to fix the opening just wondering if no notes on the ending means no one got that far.

Also, would you ever consider reviewing a plot synopsis or outline for a fiction novel from a prospective client?

Usually I stop when I know I'm going to pass. Of the 50+ manuscripts I've read this year (so far) I read all the way to the end on about five.

There are two reasons for this. The first is time management. Reading a manuscript I know I am not going to take on means I'm not reading the next requested full on the list that might be a yes. I need to find yes, not critique the no.

The second reason is I like to keep fresh eyes.  If a writer revises and asks to resubmit, generally I take a second look. If I haven't read the whole thing, there's a lot better chance the revision will be fresh and new to me. That's a good thing.

No notes on the ending means no one got that far. I read a book this week with an ending that left me screeching with frustration. You can bet that was in the notes!

And no, I'm not going to look at a plot outline or synopsis on an unfinished book from a prospective client.  The hardest part of writing a book isn't coming up with a plot outline or synopsis. It's finishing the book and revising it to perfection.  That's when you get my eyeballs. Not one nano-second before.

And boy howdy, the crushed hopes and dreams not to mention forlorn faces of people at writing conferences who ask me to do just that ("here let me tell you what the novel is about!") I don't do this
to be cruel and heartless (that's just a bonus.) I do this because I have blank spaces on my data base of requested fulls for the first years I was agenting when people sent me queries for half baked finished novels and I wanted to read them, only to never hear from them again.  No more.

If you're hearing a lot of nos to requested fulls you need an editorial assessment from an independent editor, or a writing class, or a writing conference.

Alternatively, pick up any of the myriad books on writing and see if there's something there that gives you insight. I just bought two copies of Save The Cat to send to writers with strict instructions to read about pacing.


Ellen said...

Original poster: Watch out for the term "fiction novel." It's a red flag to agents, because novels are, by definition, fiction. You're lucky you escaped a shark bite on that one ... she must have been freshly fed.

Seriously, though, don't use that term.

Timothy Lowe said...

"Save the Cat!" - Great suggestion, Janet. Here's a link to a spreadsheet that is very helpful:

Personally, I find beginnings the hardest part. Back to the grindstone!

stacy said...

There was also a spreadsheet (I think it was a downloadable Google sheet) of books on writing recommended by the community who read this blog. But I wasn't able to find it in a search, and I'm not seeing a link for it on the sides of the blog.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I am resisting an overwhelming temptation to spring on commenters any and all sub-amusing expressions related to the word "pacing". Like a father in a 1950's maternity waiting room pacing, and muttering, (it is a boy, a girl or even mine).
No I won't do that.
Pacing in writing is to important. It's like jumping rope to a waltz, switching to disco and ending with hip hop.
Nope no pacing comments here today.

Kitty said...

I don't do this to be cruel and heartless (that's just a bonus.)

Now there's a subhead to consider.

nightsmusic said...

OP, our first instinct is to 'lay the groundwork' of the story. To take that first three chapters and fill the reader in on the characters, the setting, the weather and every detail in the story EXCEPT WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT. I stress that because that is your plot. I'm also going to stress, DON'T DO THAT!

You want your readers to want to turn the page to find out what happens next. It's a simple thing to say and a very hard thing to do, but filling them in on the details before your plot ever appears makes their eyes cross and they close the book. I would guess that's when La Sharque quits reading as well.

You're too close to your story. You might not be able to see that. Ask your beta readers what made them keep going and ask them for an honest answer. You might be surprised by them.

Theresa said...

OP, I agree with Ellen, and her point goes along very well with Janet's about taking a class and/or attending a conference. Keep learning about the process--both writing and getting published. The term fiction novel is shudder inducing, and that's not the first emotion you want your query to produce.

Lennon Faris said...

Another agent wrote (can't remember who) that a writer shouldn't even assume every agent even gets through the query.

That got my attention. You have to grab their interest the whole way through or they just stop. I admit, in bookstores so do I.

Wish you well, OP!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

And see, 2Ns, when I see "pacing" I think about horse racing, from my long early obsession with horses, fueled by Mr. Walter Farley. I get stuck with word usage sometimes, where my original relation to the word makes it hard for me to relate to it in other contexts at first blush. Not as hard a time as I do with acronyms, though, boy howdy.

Donnaeve said...

It seems crazy maybe, but I bet you know by two to three pages in if the answer is yes or no, but you probably keep reading - just in case something snaps you to attention on, say page 30.

I'm reading a book right now that was longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and I'm struggling with a bit. It's not a bad book. It has a great premise, but I find it to be a "weird," sort of story in that the focus is mostly on the MC's thoughts, and we've now (by about page 90) been given a taste of his wife's thoughts too. There aren't many details (IMO) about the main event that turns the character's world apart. I'm thinking of making it a DNF. I hardly ever do that - but like you say, there's this thing called time, and we only have so much of it. I want to move on to books that are more enjoyable, while allowing me a glimpse into the craft of what makes a particular story work.

And as a sidenote, at the same time, I'm also reading a manuscript to provide a blurb, and the manuscript is SO MUCH BETTER. I'd know in a heartbeat if I were browsing in a bookstore, and read a snippet or two of each, which I'd choose.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

This is what I would expect of an agent - to stop reading when they know it's a pass. Time being in limited supply.

I do have a question regarding beta readers. I am still far, far away from query pit of despair, but I am inching toward beta readers. This is really for the group- how many beta readers are ideal?

Lots of people are volunteering to be beta readers for my new book- like around 50 and that's too many. Also, I can't afford to create that many hard copies of a book that runs 150k words. How many is ideal-3,4, 6? What do y'all think?

Robert Ceres said...

Wow, this blog has been on a real tear these last few weeks.

I personally think the the most efficient and effective feedback anyone can give is "I stopped reading here because XXX)." If, by that point in the book, the writer can't understand how the reader reaches that conclusion, then revision is going to be futile. I wish it were mandatoryinfo in an agent's response to the full.

When I'm a beta reader, even when I read the entire manuscript, I always try to provide this kind of information. Or, more hopefully, "I read all the way through and didn't stop because XXX." That's pretty helpful feedback as well.

S.P. Bowers said...

Thank you, this was a very timely post for me. I've had lots of full requests this year, all of them coming back 'I just didn't love it enough'. I did get comments on the end so that's good. I guess. Off to buy SAVE THE CAT and learn enough to push it from 'I just didn't love it enough' to 'gimme, gimme, gimme'.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Yes, such helpful information. But I had guessed agents would only read as far as they're interested. Because, like Janet and a few others above highlighted, time.

EM I'm curious too about beta readers. Yes, 50 would be overload. Is 3-5 too few? I had one beta reader for my first full draft. I'm still doing my comb through before reading her notes then I'll send out the next draft to different beta readers.

This writing business requires so much...what was that word? Patience!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I might be strange in the sense that I leave novels unfinished all the time. If I'm bored, if the main character acts out-of-character, if I can predict every plot point fifty pages before it occurs, then I just stop reading. OH! Or if the main character suddenly catches a bad case of stupid for the sake of the narrative. That's the main reason why I stopped reading Hunger Games about 30 pages through the second book.

I usually tell authors I beta-read for when and why I stopped reading, though. I try to be very polite about it, and usually the author is grateful for the feedback.

Susan said...

This is enlightening. Particularly since I write more quiet, literary-type fiction, I often have trouble with pacing on the first few go-rounds, and my main concern was that people would stop reading.

But the first few drafts are for us as the authors anyway--to get the story out of our heads, to get to know the characters, to put the ingredients together. Then we knead the story so it's ready for baking and hand it over to our taste-testers, the beta-readers. My beta-readers helped me fix a huge problem with the pacing (by which I mean I completely revised the first half of the book). I didn't want to do it, but I'm so happy I did.

Elise: 50 potential beta-readers?! That's great that it shows interest in your book! I'd suggest 3-5 (and readers of differing tastes--i.e. someone who favors the adventure aspect, someone who leans towards the romance in books) so you can get personal reactions to your story and weigh the feedback.

stacy said...

Not to go off-topic and give the OP more work than s/he asked for... but it finally occurred to me to check my Google Drive. Lo and behold, there was the beautiful spreadsheet. Here's a link. Hope it works and is helpful:

I too struggle with pacing, but I tend to have the opposite problem--I go too fast. I often have to add a little to my second drafts before taking out unnecessary stuff in the third.

RachelErin said...

EM, I'm almost ready for beta readers, too. I will only share my work if a) they are well read in either fantasy, YA, or both; b) I have evidence they give good critique. I want a variety - some are writers, some are avid readers, about three of each. Assume they won't all finish it. You can always tell the others you might want a second round, and/or promise an ARC to review =).

To the OP - analyze the feedback you asked your betas for. How experienced are they at giving critique? It's a learned skill. I specifically ask for A (awesome), B (boring), C (confused), and D (didn't believe), adding in a Why if they have time (I stole this from Mary Robinette Kowal). Some people I might ask for more technical advice on certain elements. Look for patterns where the readers agree. Also, meta things like pacing and structure are hard for amateur editors to analyze - they just know if it bored or confused them, so it can take work to decode their feedback.

Your gut feeling that no one got to the end is probably true. When I helped with theater auditions, I learned is Absolutely Easy to decide if an actor is good in less than a minute (like a query). It takes longer to figure out if there is a spot in the cast for their talent. Agents read until the don't have to, just like a casting manager who interrupts a scene – NEXT!

nightsmusic said...

EM I'm just curious why you're giving beta readers hard copies. Any betas I've had get a copy in Word form and that way, they can use the Track Changes feature and make comments throughout. Much easier for me too to do a side-by-side when I'm going through everything. Admittedly, that's just my preference, but it works for me.

And I have three betas. Two published authors and one not. Anymore than that and I'd end up with too many differing opinions and that would make me want to scrap the whole thing.

Donnaeve said...

EM I have to admit, my first thought when I read you have 50 people who want to be beta readers was, holy cow, how did so many find out about your book? I gotta believe they're folks you know well - i.e. maybe co-workers, friends, family and the like.

The main comment I get from everyone I know - from folks here in town to my old co-workers, and even a lot of my family - I didn't know you like to write. Which simply means I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I rarely, if ever talked about writing. Can't explain it. I think it was because, much like Diane feels with her reading, I'm the sort who keeps it tightly held until...

Personally, I think three is a good number. No more than five. And if the comments are all over the place - i.e. if you go with more than that, look for the trending feedback and focus on that. Or, what you might know in your gut isn't quiteright, and see if anyone notices it too. I can't wait to hear how they love it!

Robert Ceres said...

As to how many Beta readers, how about this? Enough to achieve some consensus. Sometimes the consensus might be with myself. The “holy-crap how did I miss that,” reaction. Or, true story, contradictory feedback from two readers that there was too much romance between the secondary characters, and, there was not enough. The consensus? Something is definitely wrong with the relationships in the secondary characters. Revise, and try again.

Sherry Howard said...

Remember that when you are ready for beta readers that you have some folks right here who might be very helpful! Sometimes you'll need rounds of beta readers. For instance, if you get feedback from the first round that significant changes are needed, you'll want fresh eyes after you edit. Editing is the devil, and beta readers and editors are the angels who give you wings to get through that devil.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Donna I work in a large school district. For my last book, I had 4 beta readers, one the daughter of a co-worker who loved it and blabbed to her father and students who blabbed to everyone. Word of mouth is powerful. Now various students and teachers keep asking if they can read the new book. Not sure it's deserved. My co-worker's daughter said my last book was better than The Hunger Games and yet I shelved it to be revised and revitalized later. It wasn't really that good after much contemplation. Hopefully, new book is the ticket. It feels better but who knows?

Nightmusic That is a great idea about just providing a Word copy to betas. My only problem with that is I think the mind misses things reading electronic copies more than paper copies. But I suppose if reader wants to print sections they can.

Rachel I think you make a good point. None of the beta volunteers are necessarily good at reviews to my knowledge. I may still have to solicit people I feel would be thorough and give usable feedback. Might have to shake down the Reef.

Susan 3-5 sounds like a manageable number to me and Lisa staggering out the betas seems an interesting method. That way you are only combing through 1-2 sets of notes at a time.

Thanks everyone. You are the best rodent wheel running Reef dwellers ever.

Mark Thurber said...

Great post -- I'd been wondering the same thing. I have a follow-up question for Janet: On what percentage of rejected fulls do you provide at least some feedback? Feedback could be anything from a simple "I got bored and stopped reading on page 7" (which I agree with Robert Ceres is super-useful) to a more detailed critique of what is and isn't working.

Now that I've hung around the Reef and QueryShark for a while, I tend to assume any use of the term "fiction novel" is ironic.

Claire Bobrow said...

This is an interesting question. I put books on the DNF list with some frequency. As others have mentioned, time is in short supply and there's always that next book on the nightstand.
However, a couple of my favorite novels started veerrryy slowly. I'm so glad I hung in there until they grabbed me. One of them, a six-book series, is at the top of my all-time list, and I only learned later that it comes with a companion book to explain the darn thing. I didn't understand what was going on for at least the first 100 pages of the initial book. in the heck does an agent last long enough to get hooked on some of this stuff?

John Davis Frain said...

Shot in the dark, OP, but based on your question and the theory that nobody is getting to the end of your ms, two books that gave me aha moments were Save the Cat and James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure.

I know everybody's different, but I don't know any way reading some excellent books on writing will hurt you. At some point, of course, you have to stop reading and start writing. And when you do, I bet you'll notice the difference. It's a tingly feeling where you notice the edges of your lips start to turn up. You'll hope it's contagious.

Colin Smith said...

What keeps someone reading your manuscript? As Donna said, she's reading a prize-winning book that is not grabbing her attention--and yet a committee somewhere declared it un-put-down-able! So there is a subjective element to this. That said, you don't have to threaten your MC's life in the first three pages to hold the reader's interest. There are other ways to create suspense and encourage the reader to turn a page, and books like SAVE THE CAT will help with that.

Beta readers: As others have said, 3-5 is a good range. What matters more than the quantity is quality. You don't want to ask people who are simply going to give you a pass on every little flaw and say, "Oh, honey, it was delightful!" But you also don't want to ask someone who will be hyper-critical and make you want to quit writing. Be clear on what you're looking for from your betas. I usually ask them to point out the good and the bad: "I laughed" "I cried" "I was confused" "I got bored," and to indicate at what points in the ms these things happened. If they cried during the comedic moment, or laughed during the death scene, you may have a problem. If they put the ms down to go to the bathroom and forgot about it for three days, you want to know at what point in the ms that happened.

Make it as easy for them as possible. Don't ask how to fix the problems--that's your job. If they want to make suggestions, that's okay, but that's up to them. If they want to line-edit for typos and grammatical issues, that can be helpful too.

That's my 2-cents for now... :)

Craig F said...

Off Topic: Elise, what makes you think you have to make a hard bound book for each beta reader? This is the time and land of tablets and kindles. E-mail them an attachment and let them download it onto whatever they normally read on.

If you have 50 so far unqualified beta readers you will get maybe three that do it right and have insights that are useful. Half of them will get lost along the way, six will just reply with a "wow". The other 16 will just confuse you.

On topic: Fifty requests and only five fully read. Is that how so many crappy books get out there, nobody ever reads them through? I could believe it. Out of, on average, 16 books checked out of the library per month, I read maybe ten of them all the way through.

Other than that I am getting further confused about reading time needed. Maybe that was the point.

nightsmusic said...

Claire, I'm guessing the book you're talking about is fantasy? That is the only genre I know that can get away with a ton of world building before you even meet the characters. I think it's almost expected because the fantasy world can be so intricate. Any other genre though and the book usually turns into a snoozer.

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

Here's Timothy's link:

Don't forget the Writing Helps available in the Treasure Chest

stacy: Would you like me to add a link to your spreadsheet in the Treasure Chest? Or perhaps add the spreadsheet itself?

RosannaM said...

Oh, wow, I loved the question about querying an unwritten novel. There have been so many people who (when finding out I'm a writer) have said, "I have this great idea for a book!" And then look at me expectantly. And I know my next line should be "tell me, and I'll write it for you and we'll split the millions!!"

Those pesky ideas that rattle around in my brain and then refuse to behave themselves into a proper story are the source of much abrupt chair screeching and mental pacing. How dare an idea not turn into spun silk, effortlessly spilling forth onto the page?

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Thank you for the helpful - if devastating - reality-check statistics. But oh Lord, they make for depressing reading. So, of the eleventy-zillion queries you got this year (which is pretty much over), you requested about 50-odd fulls. Then

> of the 50+ manuscripts I've read this year (so far) I read all the way to the end on about five

and the ending of one of those

> left me screeching with frustration.

This leads me directly to my question [which feels like biting down on a sore tooth that you KNOW you should just leave alone]: Assuming the screechy one fails to eventually pass muster (and I know that's not by any means a foregone conclusion) it would leave you with four submissions that you've read to the last page.

Can you give us any idea as to how many of these four manuscripts you're likely to accept? Gosh, it's getting dark in these woodlands.

stacy said...

Colin, it's actually Janet's spreadsheet, but you're welcome to add the link I provided. It's possible I added a copy of the spreadsheet to my own Drive. If people want to pull it from there, that's fine with me. I'm not sure how updated it is, though...

Julie Weathers said...

I'm supposed to be sorting through Christmas gifts to return to Best Buy, yes, already. Long, frustrating, sad story I won't go into.

Also irked I don't have the means to go to Madison Square Gardens to see Dirty Vegas buck, but what else is new?

Anyway, onward and upward. OP, Ellen is very correct. "Fiction novel" is a red flag and sets agents' teeth on edge. Since Miss Janet has fifty, she must be grinding away.


Congratulations on having so many people volunteer to be beta readers. 3-5 is sufficient. More than that and you just muddy the water. Less than that and you don't really get a well-rounded perspective. I would also choose people who read different ways. One might read more with and eye to this and another might have a different strength.

I've lost some of my beta readers and the two stalwarts I have left are not YA readers at all or they might have picked up on what the last super agent remarked. I have a YA novel packed into an adult setting.

Also, please, please, please, do not send them a book. Send them a word document so they can make notes in the document. I agreed to beta read for a lady a knew slightly and she sent me a book. I asked her how I was supposed to make notes. "Oh, just type the passage you want to make notes about and then make your comments."

No, no one has time for that. I got a couple of chapters done and sent them to her. I said if she'd like to send me the word doc I'd be happy to finish it, but this was too difficult to keep up with from the book. She was highly offended, told me off, and I never heard from her again.

Yes, some things pop out more in print, but that's a good thing for you to read and it's more for grammatical stuff rather than plot, dialogue, etc.

Colin Don't ask how to fix the problems--that's your job.

To an extent. My dos amigos and I do make suggestions about how to fix things. Whether we take the advice or not is up to us. As outsiders, we can see solutions the person who is too close to the story might not see. Thank God in heaven for them as they have often led me out of the maze. Sometimes it's just little things, sometimes it's a plot hole large enough to to drive a team of mules and a munition wagon through.

S.P. Bowers said...

Julie, if you need beta readers I'm available.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Julie I am sure you and others are right. No more printed books for beta readers and I will come up with 3-5 and no more than 5 betas. Like I said, I might try to raid the Reef and then try to find 1-2 avid readers who know how to review a book but don't like me so they won't feel the need to spare my feelings or anything like that. The rest can buy the book 3-100 years once it is published :)

Adib Khorram said...

EM: Sounds like most people have already covered what I was going to say on betas, but I will add this: if you have comp titles picked out, find beta readers who liked those comp titles. You don't have to tell them you're using it as a comp title, but at least you know they'll be coming at the work from a similar taste profile.

I'd also agree with setting expectations for what you want your beta readers to do. If you want them to be full-on critique partners (a relationship I feel is deeper than beta readers) let them know that up front.

When I beta/critique something, I tend to make suggestions for how to fix things in a sum-up email that I write, separate from the in-line comments, which I try to keep to pure reaction: this worked for me, this didn't work for me, etc. That way if the author has their own ideas on how to fix things, I haven't spoiled it for them. But as my relationship with my critique partners has deepened, we have all gotten more comfortable offering suggestions, because we understand each other better.

Forming two or three lasting partnerships has been more valuable to me than twenty beta reads from people who were, essentially, reading for enjoyment.

Adib Khorram said...

P.S. The excellent Jane Friedman has a post on finding the right critique group/partner for you:

Lucy Crowe said...

Fifty beta readers, wheeee! I probably had about ten on my first novel, not counting family or friends. Joining a writer's group made all the difference - I was able to find people who were interested in my genre and were not at all invested in being overly kind, since they didn't know me from Adam. You want enough readers to see if they all trip (or hopefully, do not!) at the same spot, but not so many as to become confusing. Too many, and one or two are bound to have conflicting opinions with the rest of the group - which of course you'll have to consider, and then you'll be right back where you started, still not able to gauge you novel's merit

Joseph Snoe said...

Great post and comments today.

At first I thought maybe I had typed the OP message while sleepwalking, but I didn’t.

Janet Reid wrote, “The hardest part of writing a book [is] finishing the book and revising it to perfection.”

I’m in the major revision stage. To me major revisions after I thought the book was done is the hardest part. With rare exceptions, the thrill of story discovery is gone. It’s laborious and at times demoralizing. As far as the “to perfection” part, forgetaboutit. With thousands of decisions to be made and remade, it’s impossible to get them all right (The good news is it’s nearly impossible to get them all wrong too!).

Julie Weathers said...


I will take you up on that when I have something ready to read again.


Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I spent about 6 hours on the tractor today. I got nothin'...

Brigid said...

Psst, y'all know about the Goodreads giveaway of our Donna's book?

Ardenwolfe said...

Honestly? This shouldn't surprise anyone. It's the same test our readers give us. They don't read the whole book before they decide. Hell, they give us even less leeway for failure.

Beth said...

Joseph, I'm the opposite. To me, the revision and polishing is like that part of the home show when all the hard work of painting and carpentery are done, and they set out candles, flowers, and throw pillows to make it perfect.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

E.M., you make hard copies of your novels for beta readers? That's going the extra mile. Mine get emailed a Word doc with commenting turned on.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am never providing hard copies to my betas again after feedback from group. It'll be a word doc with comments enabled from now on :) Now I simply have to carefully select betas that will be most helpful.