Saying No After I’ve Requested Your Manuscript

We spend a lot of time on these blogs discussing what makes an agent say “yes, I want to see more” or “no thanks” after reading a query. And last week I tried to give you some idea of the things I’m looking for in a manuscript, things that make me want to keep reading your partial or full. Today I’m going to approach it from the opposite angle. I want to address the question of what makes me say “no” after I’ve requested your manuscript.

Of course, there could be any number of problems that make me stop reading and/or say no. I just want to mention two major things I’ve been noticing lately.

1. The story falls apart after the first 2-3 chapters.

With a surprising number of manuscripts, the first two or three chapters are polished and amazing and full of action and contain a great hook to keep me reading. In other words, it’s a compelling set-up. But the book falls apart quickly after that. The tension disappears, action is slow or non-existent, plot is weak, there is too much narrative and not enough scenes, or it all gets bogged down in backstory. The fact is, there’s a big difference between being able to write a few great chapters, and being able to sustain the tension and interest throughout 80,000+ words.

I’ve noticed something that might indicate part of the problem. Writers who are entering their fiction in lots of contests typically have twenty-or-so pages that are really great (because that’s all most contests require you to submit). But frequently the rest of the manuscript is nowhere near as good as the opening.

So ask yourself: Have you put as much work into the last 90% of the book as you put into the first 10%?

2. The manuscript doesn’t pass the “put it down” test.

This is my own little gauge to help me determine if I really like a book. It always takes several days to read a full manuscript. I read in bits of time here and there (never during the regular work day), which is helpful because it approximates the way most people read novels. So, after I’ve put the MS down—how eager am I to pick it up again? During the interim, how much am I thinking about the story and wondering what’s going to happen? When my reading time rolls back around again, am I excited to pick up the book, or do I feel more like I’ve been assigned to read something for a class?

This is a huge indicator of whether or not your story is crafted in such a way that readers will want to keep turning pages. Your book has to pass this test, because the only books that get wonderful word-of-mouth and pass-along from readers are the books people actually finish and enjoy all the way to the end. Subjective? Yes, of course. But if I’m going to represent a book, I need to be able to confidently stand behind it and advocate for it. If I can’t make it to the end, it’s not going to work very well.

I can’t teach you on a blog how to sustain your novel through 300+ pages. It’s trial and error, experience, and studying the craft by taking workshops from great teachers and reading books on crafting fiction (such as The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, or Writing the Break Out Novel by Donald Maass).

The important thing to realize is that getting an agent to request your partial or full is only the first step. After that, you’ve got to keep them reading all the way to the end.

Q4U: Have you found it challenging to keep your story interesting and keep the reader engaged beyond the first few chapters? How did you recognize the problem? What are you doing to solve it?

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. katharina on March 5, 2014 at 4:22 AM

    Do publishers/agents usually give feedback on a rejection in the case where a full manuscript has been requested? And if they don’t, (in my case) why wouldn’t they provide feedback, even if it is short?

  2. Jessica Rising on May 10, 2013 at 5:15 AM

    I seem to worry more about this particular issue than my readers give me reason to. One thing I do, which has come naturally to me (for which I am eternally grateful), is end every chapter in a cliffhanger. If my characters aren’t hanging off cliffs every five to ten pages or so, I’m doing something wrong. There have been a few exceptions to that rule, such as when I am in a place where explanations have to be given, but for the most part I have found this to be a great way to keep them reading!

  3. Brad Jasperson on May 2, 2013 at 4:40 PM

    If I were to get a rejection from a full manuscript would it be appropriate to ask the agent for feedback and resubmission?

  4. Tony Noland on March 3, 2010 at 7:10 AM

    >This is a great post. We hear so much about the importance of the first 50 pages in hooking the agent that we might forget that there's a reader to not only attract but hang onto.

  5. Michelle Shocklee on February 20, 2010 at 4:56 PM

    >Great post and info. But I have to add that the "put down test" sometimes slips even at the publishing stage of the book. I currently have two books by well-published CBA authors that I cannot finish. I can't even get to chapter three, the stories are that dull! One of the authors is one of my fav's and has been published for ages! (This is actually the 2nd book by this author that I've found to be seriously lacking and I've by no means read everything she's written.) The ohter author has been pubbed for over 11 years. Both write in my fav genre. It's disappointing to spend $$ on books I won't ever read.

  6. AmyBoucherPye on February 20, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    >Rachelle, would love to hear about any equivalent 'put down test' for non-fiction. How do you evaluate that?

  7. Catherine H on February 18, 2010 at 7:16 PM

    >I found that my beginning was slower and the ending was great (I have a tendency to write my books in random order then put together like a puzzle – go figure). Perhaps one reason is that it is hard to learn to let go of something you have created. You might love what you have written but is it essential? Can you do without it? Can you put in something that has far more of a 'hook' and will draw the reader into the lives of your characters? Just a few thoughts.
    I happen to love that one of your deciding factors is the 'put down' factor. I just love a book that will keep me up till the wee hours of the morning.

  8. sharonbially on February 17, 2010 at 1:43 PM

    >How about this: I've had several agents read the full, say they "read it with interest," and "it's a good book,"(one even said she devoured it!) then add that they simply didn't know how to break it into the current fiction market because there's no murder, no shocker or any of the other hot plot twists that editors are buying these days (that is, from first-time novelists). Yet I intentionally left those out and made the drama purely character-driven because I'm kind of tired of reading about those things! What's a writer to think?

  9. s9 on February 17, 2010 at 2:37 AM

    >"Have you found it challenging to keep your story interesting and keep the reader engaged beyond the first few chapters? How did you recognize the problem? What are you doing to solve it?"

    p1. Yes, but the problem doesn't come after the first few chapters; it comes at about the 2/3 mark.

    p2. I recognized the problem because $SUPERPOWERED_LITERARY_AGENT told me so in the rejection letter I received.

    p3. I don't have a solution. I am at a loss.

  10. Terrance Foxxe on February 16, 2010 at 9:21 PM

    >I always start with a big idea to carry the novel from start to finish. My characters lead me by the hand, start to finish. Trimming the flab is a given, as well as pumping up the action. I always look at the finished product, not the first three chapters. My last page has to be as good as my first page. It's a matter of personal pride. I need to craft good stories.

  11. Sarah on February 16, 2010 at 5:42 PM

    >I'm in the process of finishing the first draft of my novel (11 chapters to go!) I've started and stopped writing countless novels and this is the first I've been able to stick with. The way I see it, when I start getting bored with a scene or feel like writing is really hard work, I cut and run. I do whatever I have to do to end the scene and get to the next interesting part. I figure when it's time to edit, I can cut out those slow scenes altogether. I have not gone back to revise anything yet, although I'm already thinking about things that need a major overhaul. But I'm just continuing on. You can't get published if you never finish the book! But the fat must be trimmed after the first draft. Celebrate that you finished the draft, but don't get so caught up in the moment that you send it off to someone.

  12. Lee Ee Leen on February 16, 2010 at 11:18 AM

    >Donald Maas said that most manuscripts lack tension, which is ahy they fail the put-it-down test

  13. Anonymous on February 16, 2010 at 4:37 AM

    >rachelle, a related question – does it make you stop reading if you think the book is great but not original? I am writing a thriller and i think i am paranoid that it would look like any other thriller or James Twining or Dan Brown.. I am sure you receive a lot of queries trying to sell a vampire novel or an ancient secret society novel.. What makes you select some (if at all) and reject others? (especially that there are so many awful books PUBLISHED on the templar knights and codes etc, which i personally think are unreadable…) thank you

  14. Claudia on February 16, 2010 at 12:14 AM

    >Really helpful post, thanks! The only point I would raise is that sometimes the action feels just a bit much… I just read the Knife of Never Letting Go and thought it was near-perfect, except there were just no valleys, no down-beats… few rests and hardly any white space… (also I resent cliffhangers in general…violate the contract with the reader…if I stick with you for 300+ pages, you don't need to hook me for the next book with a cliffhanger! Cheap trick.) I really loved the book and thought it was gripping and important, and so well done, but gee. Sometimes this advice to be un-put-downable seems to be a tad forced/overdone.

  15. Allison Ellis on February 15, 2010 at 11:32 PM

    >Wonderful insight for me as a first-time novelist. I get it – if the book isn't engaging all the way through, what's the point?

    1. Write a great novel from beginning to end.
    2. Sell it to an agent. Give them a good reason to read the WHOLE thing
    3. Make readers happy!

    I know, I know, easier said than done. But that's why we write. Right?

  16. Anonymous on February 15, 2010 at 9:44 PM

    >It was extremely interesting for me to read the post. Thanks the author for it. I like such themes and everything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more soon.

    Sincerely yours

  17. patriciazell on February 15, 2010 at 9:07 PM

    >I'm not writing fiction, but I was having problems in getting way too technical in my non-fiction. In fact, once I was writing a proposal when I actually complained to God that it sounded the same as several previous proposals (i.e., boring!). God is great–He made the way for me to start my own blog and I am writing my book there. The change in my voice is wonderful (at least to me).

    I agree with your second point. If I don't have the desire to pick up a book I've started, I don't finish it. I'm finding there are far too many books like that!

  18. Donna Hole on February 15, 2010 at 8:31 PM

    >Oh, this is helpful. Really appreciate the advice Rachelle.

    The "put it down" test really hits the mark for me – as a reader as well as a writer. I'm glad I have had betas and critters that are honest enough to tell me when the plot is lagging, when their interest is flagging.

    Knowing these two essential points will definitely help once I start querying again. Thanks.


  19. Kathleen L. Maher on February 15, 2010 at 8:25 PM

    >I am so grateful for honest advice, and a forum like this in which to learn and exchange ideas. I wonder if a discussion on plot-driven stories versus character-driven could follow? I realize that even character-driven stories can't have a sagging middle, but are there different techniques with which to approach each? Is the conflict always external?

  20. D.A Ravenberg on February 15, 2010 at 7:15 PM

    >If I'm writing a story and I'm on the edge of my seat as the writer, then I think things are going well. If I'm bored writing a scene, then I sit back and reconsider my approach.

    For me, the best indication that I'm on to something is to feel like it's alive, like I'm not writing the story but rather slowly unearthing it.

  21. Kaitlyne on February 15, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    >This might just be me, but I always have a bit harder of a time on the beginning. I have my stories plotted out in advance so I never really have a problem with getting stuck in the middle, but I have a tendency to try to build tension, starting with small conflicts at the beginning that might be rather light and then building over time toward bigger ones.

    I think I'm pretty good at this, and my beta readers have told me that I am, but it leaves me afraid that I'll have the opposite problem. All you ever hear is that your opening chapters have to be absolutely amazing and astounding and full of action and conflict to get an agent to even consider reading on. Even when it works for the story, even when the pacing is good, even when the opening is still interesting, I still can't help but feel like I'm shooting myself in the foot.

  22. Abby Stevens on February 15, 2010 at 6:14 PM

    >From my beta comments, it seems the action in my MS is good, but it takes a little too long right now to get to it (major action currently starts at around 40 pages in), so I am in the process of editing and combining a couple chapters to make my main character start her adventure sooner in the story.

  23. Lou on February 15, 2010 at 5:40 PM

    >Sage advice, Rachelle. I agree with the first point completely. In my experience of writing with other unpublished writers, we are all informed to really polish those first 3 chapters- make that first line and paragraph the best it can be to hook the reader. I think once you've done these you can lose momentum.

    I'm struggling with my first novel at the moment and these points have really helped, so thank you. I'll be sure to check out those recommended reads. 🙂

  24. Mark Young on February 15, 2010 at 4:52 PM

    >First, and foremost, I take a look at the novel and try to determine whether I have enough passion and enthusiasm to carry me to the end. If I can't keep myself interested, how can I keep others turning pages.

    Recently, I had two novels in mind, and wrote a beginning chapter for each. Honestly, I could have gone either way. I was talking to a couple friends and suddenly thought I'd just run the ideas past them. Both friends leaped on the idea for one of the novel, and slammed the other idea. I'll see in twelve months whether they were right.

  25. Rachelle on February 15, 2010 at 4:49 PM

    >Andrea Lee: I changed my preference awhile back from 10 pages to 3-5 pages, but I didn't change it in every single place I've ever mentioned it, and I realize that. So while my current preference is 3-5 pages, I'm not going to reject you for sending 10 since my own website has conflicting information. This is one of those moments where it's best to make your best decision and just send it.

  26. Andrea Lee on February 15, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    >I totally appreciate your blog. Thank you so much. I do have a question that does not relate to today's post. I have been studying your submission guidelines and your post concerning writing queries. The s.g.'s require the query letter and 3-5 pages of the manuscript while your other post suggests the query letter with 10 pages of the manuscript. Which do you prefer for Non-fiction? Thanks!

  27. Katie V on February 15, 2010 at 4:24 PM

    >Ouch. Way close to home.

    For me, middles are hard. I have a beginning, an end, and characters who need to DO SOMETHING in the middle.

    To answer your question: I'm in dialogue w/ a freelance editor about working on the first MS – especially after your post on editing / non-editing agents.

    For the WIP, I know that story/scene goal is the problem. I just don't know the answer. Outlining is cool if you have something to put into the outline.

  28. Katie Ganshert on February 15, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    >I realize everybody writes differently. But for me, I MUST outline. And outlining saves me so much trouble. My outline pretty much ensures that I keep the tension going, even heightened, throughout the course of the story. I want to write unputdownable books.

  29. Dana on February 15, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    >Are you talkin' to me?

    Rachelle, I laughed out loud on this one. As I edit, I have that goal in mind. I am quite aware that I have polished about six chapters to what I believe to be perfection. Oh, but the rest of the book…

    I have now developed a habit to finish editing one chapter and then go back to the previous two chapters and edit them once more. It has been effective and each time I review the same chapter, I say to myself, "What was I thinking?"

    I dream at night about being one of those, "can't put it down" books for you.

    We will just have to wait and see.


  30. Nordicblogger on February 15, 2010 at 3:33 PM

    >As is often the case, I feel much more focused after reading your blog. I don't reply often, but I do read here every day. Thanks!

  31. Kristen Torres-Toro on February 15, 2010 at 2:58 PM

    >I had a backstory dump. Now it's sprinkled throughout–in dialogue–in much later chapters. I opened my novel with an arguement instead of description, and immediately jumped into action. Post chapters 1-3, I tried to maintain the conflict/tension while progressing the story. A lot of it meant better/more different dialogue. I really feel like it's a lot stronger now.

  32. Jen on February 15, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    >I have great difficulty with the middle. The beginning and the end are much, much easier for me to write. I think it's because the beginning allows a wonderful build-up, the middle feels like slogging through, and the end is the dramatic catharsis.

  33. Mira on February 15, 2010 at 2:39 PM

    >Very good post – thanks. It's interesting. I wonder if creating a page-turner can be learned. I think it can, I think it has to do with the pace, the intensity and compelling nature of the conflict. Also, I've noticed that those books with at least a couple of very interesting minor story arcs, in addition to the main story arc, tend to be more engrossing. (Could be wrong about that, though.)

    I also think that any one book can be a page-turner for one person, but not another.

    It's when you find a page-turner for everyone – that's your best-seller.

  34. JustWriteCat on February 15, 2010 at 2:38 PM

    >After an agent and two freelance editors pointed out that the beginning of my novel was too slow – that it felt like I was setting a scene, rather than showing the scene – I decided to work with a developmental editor. I revised the opening chapter, which is now faster paced and jumps right to the action. By rewriting the first chapter, I became better aware of pacing in the rest of my novel. I realized it was crucial to keep things going, rather than setting things up.

    So, working with a freelance developmental editor can help. Now, I'm not 100% sure how I feel about the process given much of the feedback he gave me was not as helpful. I do think working with an editor can help. I would only advise working with someone who can offer a critique of the first chapter or so (free or for a fee) so that you have a better idea of what to expect. This way you can tell if it's a good fit or not, because I think that is so very important. Find someone who really gets your writing and understands the vision you have for your story and characters. In hindsight, I should have made sure of that before making the investment with this editor.

    I also read the first chapter of as many books as possible (in my genre). Seriously – I go to the library or the bookstore and pick dozens of books at a time. I read the first page – see if I'm hooked and why. Then I read the entire first chapter and go through the checklist of why the first chapter worked (or not). Backstory? Hook? Setting the scene? Etc. Then I try to compare that to my first chapter. It really helped when revising my opening chapter.

  35. Keli Gwyn on February 15, 2010 at 2:32 PM

    >I rewrote a story, adding a beginning and a hook that grabbed contest judges and garnered me a number of wins. However, I learned later that I had inadvertently sabotaged that start a quarter of the way into the story. I took my savvy, knowledgeable agent's advice and am rewriting the story again and will keep at it until I get it right. The writing itself is okay, but I'm increasing the tension at every turn.

  36. Liberty Speidel on February 15, 2010 at 2:02 PM

    >I'm doing a MS exchange with a friend right now, and was delighted when she e-mailed me and told me she read my MS in 6 hours. I hope that an agent will feel the same way about my project and not be able to put it down, either!

    Still, I know I still have some work to do. I try to read a lot, and some of my biggest influences are Kathy Reichs, Diane Mott Davidson, and Nora Roberts, so I've learned that you have to keep your book going–action, or some kind of progression on every page, whether it's with the mystery (the genre I write in) or something with the characters. I cut 20K+ words in a recent rewrite just trying to keep that in mind, bringing my slightly unwieldly mystery from about 108K down to a svelte 84K. 🙂 I hope the work pays off.

  37. Jessica on February 15, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    >It was tough learning that my story got boring after the first few chaps. I'd paid for a full crit before subbing it and thought I'd fixed the sagging middle, but now I think maybe I didn't. Either way, I think your points are great. I'd agree about the polished-to-death chapters.
    And put-downability…well, we all want to read interesting stuff. I would think every agent, and even editors, judge manuscripts this way?
    Thanks for the insights here!

  38. Ron Estrada on February 15, 2010 at 1:28 PM

    >I've been working on making my secondary characters deeper. It's hard for the protag to carry the reader's interest for 400 pages, but a good cast of characters can pick up the slack. Of course, the plot must unfold throughout the novel. I think my biggest mistake has been to dump too much information in the first few chapters, leaving nothing left for the reader to discover.

  39. Krista Phillips on February 15, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    >*note to self* Make sure husband has logged out of Google before posting comments in the morning. URGH!

    *I* think my story is interesting beyond the first few chapters… My mom (ha) thought it was…. my critique partners as well… but I guess that part is subjective a little. I will say that I definitely want an agent that liked reading my book. If you have to yawn through it, then obviously it needs work.

  40. Liana Brooks on February 15, 2010 at 12:10 PM

    >Chapters 3, 9 and 15 are all hard for me to write in rough drafts. That's where the rambling and wanderlust hit. I want to fill in backstory and leave the plot for ten seconds.

    Ten pages later I have to erase and try again.

    As long as you know you have the tendency to veer off the straight and narrow plot line at a certain point you can correct the problem during edits.

  41. Marla Taviano on February 15, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    >My greatest fear is being boring. It's hard work not to be.

  42. Me and My Muneca on February 15, 2010 at 11:42 AM

    >I have been trying to create sub-plots and adding conflict. Working real hard on the dialogue as well to keep the story moving forward.

  43. Samantha Clark on February 15, 2010 at 11:40 AM

    >One way I try to keep the action going is to make sure that every chapter ends in a cliff-hanger, either with action or drama.

    Also, when I do my revision, I print out the manuscript and on every page, I make a note where there's conflict. When I'm going through my notes later, I know that any page that doesn't have a conflict note needs work.

  44. Julie Weathers on February 15, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    >One of my very dearest writing friends finally offered to read FAR RIDER. I didn't want to come out and ask her, but it was answered prayer. Then I started wondering what was I thinking.

    Beth is the most talented, spellbinding writer I know. She is not only a storyteller, she knows how the mechanics work.

    After much gnashing of teeth, I got rid of my beginning. Well, I actually got rid of that after the SIWC and I submitted it to Idol. My favorite two agents were the first to raise their hands to stop.

    I started out with description. The new version starts out with bad news and doesn't let up.

    Beth adored the characters and the dialogue, but as a story, it didn't work. Best advice I ever got. I had cut it from 165,000 to 130,000 and it simply didn't go back together. There were loose ends everywhere.

    I went back and completely rewrote the book based on her advice and I love it now.

    I think the problem with the glowing first chapters is they get workshopped to death. Everyone knows this is what is going to be requested, so that's what they polish.

    The book has to shine from the first word to the last, though.

    Margie Lawson has some really good classes that teach you to look for patterns in your chapters so you can visually see where you are sagging.

    As usual, this was a great post, Rachelle.

    I hope you had a wonderful Valentine's Day.

  45. Jason on February 15, 2010 at 10:22 AM

    >Another great post…wow!

    One of the things I've done is to try to create as much emotional drama as action-based drama. That (hopefully) makes the plot more interesting because you actually care about the actors.

    Also, I think redoing the chapter placement is important. After the first draft it's important to place the chapters where the tension naturally rises and falls. The end of a chapter should always be the beginning of a new problem. At least that's how I see it.

  46. K on February 15, 2010 at 10:07 AM

    >I have brutal readers as well, and they tell me when they aren't interested. It hurts, but it helps. There are certain areas where people can't put it down, but there's also a chunk (maybe two chapters) in the last third of my book where people lose interest…

    It helps knowing it's there, but I have no clue how to fix it…

  47. Amy Sue Nathan on February 15, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    >I know reader comments don't really "count" when what you really want is an agent, but each of my betas have said they started reading my book because I asked them to and finished reading it because they wanted to.

    When an author doesn't get a lot of feedback from agents (not yet anyway), this is all we have to go by. So while it doesn't move me closer to publication, it still makes me feel good. And since I'm in the query stage — feeling good a very nice thing!

  48. Matilda McCloud on February 15, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    >Thanks for this post–it makes a lot of sense, ie that if you can put it down or aren't eager to keep reading, you wouldn't want to represent it. That's pretty much how I read fiction–I give it a few chapters and then put it down if it doesn't keep me interested.

    I outlined my current WIP before I began writing it to make sure it has definite plot arcs, moves to a point of no return etc, and to keep the tension high. I wrote my previous novel without an outline and it had a saggy middle where some readers lost interest.

  49. Shelley Sly on February 15, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    >This is a great post. After having two partials requested and then rejected on my first novel last year, (and only one of the agents telling me why, the other gave me "Sorry, not for me" in an email!), I really like to know what agents are thinking past the query letter stage.

    I think my problem with that book was that the beginning didn't hook the agent, the same way you describe the "put it down" test. He said the premise of the story was great, and the grammar was fine, but the beginning just wasn't exciting. Good to know how important this is; it's something I'm definitely working on in my recent books.

  50. Joyce on February 15, 2010 at 9:34 AM

    >Rachelle, another great post. Here's the thing, I have been intrigued by this for some time. So often when I read mss at a conference or in a crit group or because someone has paid me an editorial fee I invariably see the first twenty or so pages and asked, "Am I good writer?" Uhm, my response is often, "Well, this is good but where's the rest?" Usually it hasn't been written yet because the writer is spending all her time polishing those first twenty pages to a fine patina. Wrong! Work out the entire story first. Put that same polishing energy into the middle or the muddle as Maugham called it. I'm thinking that crit groups should ask participants to spend one meeting on the beginning and then start with middle pages. Here's a horror story. Years ago when I was thinking I wanted to write a middle grade novel I attended an SCBWI conf. The editor from Penguin no less, read my first pages and said, "You've made my day, send me the rest." Instead of being honest with the man and telling him I was still working on it I rushed home and sent the entire book to him. Wrong! I blew it because I didn't take the time to work on the rest of the book. Yikes!

  51. Timothy Fish on February 15, 2010 at 9:03 AM

    >That’s why I outline. I don’t remember where I say it, but about the time I was writing Searching For Mom I read one writer’s suggestion on how to avoid sagging middles. He said, “Write to the middle.” I knew far less about plot structure than I do now, but I took that advice to heart and in the absolute middle of the book is where Sara brings Mark and Ellen together for the first time. After the setup, from the inciting incident onward, Sara has been pushing toward that point. That involved looking for a suitable woman and eliminating a few who were completely unsuitable. It involved gaining access to an Internet dating service. It involved Sara getting to know Ellen first. All of that involved challenges and as far as Sara is concerned, the midpoint ought to be the end of it. The rest of the story ought to be “and they lived happily ever after,” but there are 165 pages to fill and things can’t be that easy. That meeting blows up in Sara’s face and the challenges in the second half of the book are much harder to overcome. I now hang my stories from a more detailed plot structure that includes not on the false victory/false defeat that occurs in the very middle of a good story, but other sections as well. Still, I think knowing that we are writing to the middle is the most important thing we need to know.

    What helps me in knowing whether a story is boring or not is what most people call writer’s block. If I sit down at the computer and I struggle to think of what the characters should be doing, that tells me that the story is boring. But when I sit down and I can’t type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts, that tells me that the story is worth reading. If I am working on the later drafts and I find my heart beating a little faster, my reading pace increased and I want to get to the next page quickly, even though I know what will happen next, I know it’s good. If I don’t find that happening, the section needs work.

  52. Jonathon Arntson on February 15, 2010 at 8:59 AM

    >Currently, I am having a hard time keeping things interesting for myself. Every few chapters, I find myself going back to add interest to what I've already written, my problem is that half the time it ends up sounding disingenuous. Readers are the true test, so I suppose I need to get that in gear.

    Thanks for the though-provoking post.

  53. Author Sandra D. Bricker on February 15, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    >I was initially one of those people who told too much in the first pages. The way I overcame that was to go ahead and write it that way. Then on revision, I would decide where the REAL BEGINNING was, remove the pages before it and outline them into points that I wanted to scatter throughout the book. Some items remained at the beginning because they were necessary, but most of them were filtered in via the flow of the plot. Once I started doing this, the reaction to my books became very different.

    Another thing that has been very helpful for me (not to say that it's the right thing for everyone else) is to leave the critique groups. When every opinion is different, it can be very jarring for the revision process. So now I have 3 people, my staples as a writer: one of them is a fellow writer; the other two are avid readers. And when I say avid, I really mean it! They read EVERY final draft I write before it is ever seen by my agent, my editor, anyone. The writer is able to talk to me about craft, where I might have missed the mark. One reader talks to me about flow; was she inspired to keep reading no matter what?; did she find herself thinking about the characters when she put the book down? And the second reader is my consistency expert. What have I missed?; what did I forget about the plot that needs to be reflected later?

    I'm not saying I turn in a perfect manuscript every time, even with this system in place. But I do get a lot of adjectives like "clean," "tight," and "page turning" that I didn't get before.

    In my opinion, it's all about developing a system that works best for you as a writer, and keeping at it until it's a solid part of your routine. It becomes second nature, and that's going to make you a stronger writer.

  54. Empty Refrigerator on February 15, 2010 at 8:32 AM

    >I have the opposite problem as well. The pacing of my novel is a lot better after the first 70 or so pages. I think this is because I became a better writer during the process of writing it. I actually get a little embarrassed reading the first part now, because it's full of tell-not-show and other problems – but I'm trying to just accept those feelings so that I can revise without freaking out.

  55. T. Anne on February 15, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    >I like that you have a put it down test. A lot of times I realize a book is really good that way myself, and I tend to tell my friends. I've also noticed that some of my manuscripts I can read over and over and some of them I've no desire to go back and re-read. I suppose it's too subjective to tell on our own work if it's a 'can't put it down' novel, but that might be a good indicator as well.

  56. Limari Colón on February 15, 2010 at 8:19 AM

    >Good morning 🙂 I have a question about this. I've read tons of articles on the ever present controversy regarding word count. I started constructing my first novel with an outline of approximately 27,000 words. So far, I'm up to 31-32,000 words and already past the middle. I detest novels where there is too much blabber, and as a reader, I skip those pages to get to the good part. I don't feel I am compromising my story, in fact, I feel it's better to write less with more richness, than more with lots of bs. What do you think?

  57. Matt Heppe on February 15, 2010 at 7:40 AM

    >I'm afraid my first four chapters are good, but might make an agent think "standard fantasy." It really hits its stride in chapter five. I worry that agents and editors won't get that far before dismissing it.

  58. Kittie Howard on February 15, 2010 at 7:02 AM

    >Yet, The Book Thief becomes a best seller…

  59. Sharon A. Lavy on February 15, 2010 at 6:38 AM

    >So true, few writers have anyone read past the first three chapters. And even then . . . We all need that second, third and forth eye on our baby to make it shine.

  60. Bron on February 15, 2010 at 5:59 AM

    >After a few rounds of edits on my novel, I've come to the conclusion that manuscripts are like people. They get flabby. And, just like people, the flab tends to accumulate around the middle. I'm solving it now by cutting absolutely everything I don't need. What's left is hopefully engaging and makes the reader want to move forward in the action.

  61. Claire King on February 15, 2010 at 5:01 AM

    >Thanks for great and timely advice. I'm pretty sure this happened with my first novel, where interest from agents faded after the first 3 chapters.
    A couple of kids later and novel 2 is born. I'm going to put that first draft through its paces and make sure that all the elements are kept tight and polished through to the end.

  62. Anonymous on February 15, 2010 at 4:42 AM

    >Personally, I have brutal betas. If they get three or four chapters into a manuscript and start giving me the hairy eyeball, I know that it's not nearly close enough to being the final draft.

    I made the mistake once of letting one of my betas brow-beat me into giving her a first draft. Actually, it wasn't so much a mistake as it was a great lesson for her. (grin) Now when I say, "It's not ready yet," she doesn't argue with me. There's a reason it's called a first draft.

  63. Anonymous on February 15, 2010 at 4:32 AM

    >My problemm is the opposite: I spend so much time describing the setting, setting up the scene, introducing characters but the action really starts building up from that first chapter. The prose is leaner, descriptions fewer, the extras fade out…Isn't that how mysteries build suspense?

  64. Victoria on February 15, 2010 at 3:49 AM

    >I think that you're completely right with the first point!! I noticed that I spend a lot of time editing the first few chapters in comparison to the rest of the novel, which is something I'm working on fixing right now.

    I think the main thing I try to keep in mind is to step the pace up after the first few chapters by introducing new elements and keeping the plot moving along – I like to think that readers by that stage have a fairly good idea of the characters and wonderful things like inferences and presuppositions means you can keep giving background information without getting bogged down in details.

  65. Aimee LS on February 15, 2010 at 3:22 AM

    >I have a lot of interest in partials and couple of requests for fulls that I haven't heard back on…after a month (is this good or bad news?) but I'm still working on the manuscript and improving it. I don't think I'll quit re-writing until I sell it.

    My Critique group includes several published authors and they're amazing for picking up ways to improve story, writing and everything else. a real blessing!