By Ron Irwin
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In my role as a literary agent I have had the unsettling experience of watching how overworked editors contend with the incredible volume of fiction that comes their way each day. Not too long ago I flew to a major publishing house in New York where I met with one of the editors who was looking at a novel I had submitted to his company for consideration.
As we sat in his tiny, windowless office drinking coffee, I noticed that his desk and the floor around him were piled high with fat envelopes and boxes, all of them containing manuscripts. In the fifteen minutes we sat there, his assistant appeared with armloads more, unceremoniously dumping them on the already groaning desk and cluttered floor.
Finally, I just had to ask him how he possibly managed to read the hundreds of manuscripts that found their way to him each week. He looked at me, perplexed, and said with what I thought was great candor, ‘I don’t. That would be impossible.’
‘So,’ I countered, ‘do you simply sit here all day reading what you can?’
He said that of course he couldn’t do that either, as his days were spent buying books, creating contracts and overseeing the production details of forthcoming titles.
So when did he read the manuscripts?
The answer was disconcerting. Every night he took the first few pages from each manuscript that came over his desk that day and shoved them in his briefcase. He then went through all of these on the train home from work. Those manuscripts that could hold his attention in the first three or four pages were given a full reading the next morning.
The rest were sent back to the authors.
It was a brutal lesson about just how important it is for authors to start their work with a real bang. The idea is to begin the novel in such a way that it grabs the reader’s attention from the very first sentence and does not let go. In my opinion, you simply cannot have your best, most interesting work appear in the middle of the novel. You need to capture a reader’s attention immediately if only because the person who ultimately publishes your novel might not read past the third or fourth page
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