In discussing opening lines with my students recently, I talked about a program called Writer Idol - a take on American Idol - in which a panel of agents or editors will listen to the first page of your story read out loud and raise their hands when they would stop reading if it were a query in their slush pile. If two out of three agents raise their hands, they stop reading your piece entirely and tell you why. I stressed what a great opportunity it is to get feedback from actual agents and editors without having anything at stake (aside from your pride as you sit in an auditorium full of writers who hear the panel members pick apart your beginning - but we're writers and know that pride is way overrated). So when I learned that the Boston Book Festival was going to include a Writer Idol program, I had to go.
Here are just a few of the reasons the judges said caused them to stop reading a submission:
- interrupting the opening action for description of characters
- introducing paranormal elements until you have grounded your story in reality first
- too many things happening without setting the scene
- too many names right off the bat
- internalizing thoughts from your character too soon
- nonessential words or phrases (like "two twins")
- setting stakes that are too low
- failing to follow directions on formatting
- a dream or hallucination
- starting with a character waking up and starting her day
A couple of my favorite quotes:
- "Other people's cats are not interesting."
- "I don't think we should have to ask on the first page if these are people or mice."
While this type of program has been called a blood-bath, it's also a great opportunity to get direct feedback from agents and editors. (I know I said this earlier, but I really, really mean it.) Thanks to agents Mitchell Waters of Curtis Brown, Ltd., Lauren MacLeod of Strothman Agency, and Sorche Fairbank of Fairbank Literary Representation. And a special thanks to narrator Steve Almond who combined just enough advice and humor to keep us nervous writers sane.
Full disclosure: Yes, they read the first page of my middle grade fiction story "A Gladiator's Guide to Getting Even." And it got all the way through to the end. One agent raised her hand but promptly put it back down when she heard the surprise lurking in the next line. I wasn't crowned the winner of the day - while they liked my humor, title, and pace, they also had suggestions for improving the voice and tightening a paragraph - I walked out feeling pretty darn good.