Monday, January 31, 2011

The ‘IT’ Factor – The Contest Entrant

I’ve been doing the ‘IT’ Factor posts for quite some time now, trying to see what it is that makes an editor buy an unpublished author’s debut book. Right now I’m up to my eyeballs in contest entries so I haven’t had any free time to read for fun (or for this blog). I’ve heard the question asked of editors and agents at many conferences, “How far do you read in a submission?” The answer invariably is, “As far as it takes.” What that means is they will keep reading as long as the author keeps their interest. Sometimes that’s 2 or 3 chapters in. For a talented few, it’s the whole manuscript. For many, I’m guessing it’s not far past page 1. With the gazillion submissions they get every year, editors and agents can’t waste time on something that doesn’t grab them right away and hold on for the whole ride. With that in mind, I thought I’d do a little experiment. As I judged these entries, I put an X on the page where the author lost me. Chances are, this is where they’ll lose the editor too.

Entry #1
Page 2
Aside from the obvious newbie problems – bad sentence structure, punctuation issues, use of unintelligible dialect in the dialogue, and major plot issues – the voice was flat and the story didn’t grab me. It’s the same opening I’ve read time and time again. Nothing new here. On to the next…

Entry #2
Page 20
Started out well enough. Good, humorous voice but the author lost me when she started including scenes from a secondary character’s POV which served no purpose in moving the story forward. Once I might be able to overlook, but the author did it several times within a short time frame. I want to know what the hero and heroine are feeling at that moment. Not what a secondary character observes about them.

Entry #3
All of it
Author has a great historical voice, the dialogue was realistic and she established amazing sexual tension between the hero and heroine right away. I’d ask to see the full of this one!

Entry #4
Page 4
With the exception of the 1st 4 pages, the entire entry was backstory involving the heroine’s childhood. Booorrrriiinnng!

Entry #5
All of it
Nailed the gothic voice and did a wonderful job of setting the atmosphere. I’d ask to see the full of this one too.

Entry #6
Page 9
Good prologue but then the 1st chapter reverts to backstory. Same problem as entry #4. When the author did occasionally return to the present, the dialogue between the characters was confusing. There wasn’t enough worldbuilding to allow the reader to understand what the characters were referring to.

This is nothing new for those of us who’ve been submitting for a while. We know we have about 3 pages max to grab an editor’s attention. Probably less. But the work doesn’t stop there. Editors don’t have time for mediocre manuscripts. They won’t give the author the benefit of the doubt that the manuscript will get better, so it has to be amazing from page 1 to 400. If we don’t keep their attention, keep them turning the pages, we’re going to lose them.