Someone asked me this at a writer’s conference after downing a few more shots of tequila than prudent. The answer is yes. And no.
What looks great in a synopsis may pale when reading a few chapters. What looks great in a couple chapters may lose its edge in a 75,000 word manuscript.
But I do read them. I’d be silly not to…after all I did request it. I put the manuscript on my tablet and read on the couch, where I’m nice and comfy, and won’t be interrupted. However, the operative here is do I read to the very end?
It’s a hard call – will the story pick up after a few lifeless chapters, or stay lifeless through to the end? If I’m engaged in the plot and the characters are well defined, I’ll probably stick it out so I can get a feel for the kind of editing that would be required and whether I feel the story is marketable.
More likely than not, I read to the point where I’m convinced the story no longer has wings. I get flack from authors when I reveal this at seminars; the thrust of their argument being that the story may pick up a few chapters downstream. And they wouldn’t be wrong to feel that way. On the flip side, I’ve rejected manuscripts after reading the first five chapters because nothing was happening, the plot had yet to find any footing, or the characters were as flat as my attempts at baking.
I’ve received wails of angst upon being rejected; “If only you’d kept reading; the story picks up at Chapter 15!” Chapter 15? If I did this, I’d wrap a rope around my neck and asked the beagle to kick the stool. It’s a matter of diminishing returns, meaning the more time I spend reading something that’s in big trouble from page one and I’m on Chapter 7 means that I’m prevented from reading other fulls that I’ve requested. It’s a gut call; is it worth the time to stick it out, hoping it’ll get better, or do I move on, hoping it’ll pick up after a bad chapter or two.
Because we we pub memoir/biography, my decisions also focus on the story’s marketability and author platform. If I begin to see warts, I’ll continue reading while weighing the message and marketability against the amount of required editing. There are times when a roughly-written manuscript is worth the copious amount of editing required to make it sing.
When Do I Stop Reading?
The quick answer is when I can’t find any reason to continue turning the pages, and that point usually hits around Chapter 4-ish.
Chapter 4-itis: The first three chapters are usually the best because the author’s To Do list is filled with introducing the characters, the setting, fleshing out the plot; there’s a lot going on. But after reaching Chapter 4 or 5, the To Do list tends to run a bit thin, and I get the feeling the author is wondering “Now what do I do?”
Backstory: This is when they usually launch into Backstory, which can be a deal killer because I simply don’t know enough about the story or the characters to care about backstory, and your message and platform probably won’t save you.
Backstory can add delicious dimension when used by someone who knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, many don’t, and they fall into this classic trench and let their backstory become so top heavy that I can’t remember the main story…and I quit reading.
Characters: If I don’t get a feel for your characters after three chapters, then I’m going to quit reading because I’ve lost faith that you’ll develop them more fully downstream. Your characters are the vehicle that moves the plot along. If they aren’t three-dimensional, then I can’t stay engaged with the story.
Perception: A query letter can only reveal so much, so if I’m interested, I need to read the manuscript in order to get a better idea of what the story is about. For example, an author’s query letter led me to believe his story was about how he uses alternative medicine in his surgical practice. Given my weakness for this subject matter, I asked to read the full.
The reality was far different from my perceptions. The manuscript ended up being about the surgeon’s foray into studying alternatives for his own fulfillment, not what he uses in the operating room. So I stopped reading because the query letter and the book were miles apart.
Quality: I’ve seen query letters that knocked me against the wall only to be shocked at the writing quality in the manuscript. And, sadly, that only requires reading a few pages to realize it’s not gonna happen.
The thing to keep in mind is this; if someone asks to read your manuscript, then they’re going to read it at some point. They may not read it all, but they will read it to the point where they no longer feel compelled to continue turning the pages. Hopefully, they will hit the end and cry, “Eureka! We got us a winner.”