Is that line really necessary?

Yesterday, I waxed poetic on the subject of boredom — not your usual garden-variety ennui, but the more specific type of “Get ON with IT!” impatience that tends to infect agents, editors, and their screeners if a manuscript drags for more than, say, a quarter of a page — which is, as I’m sure has already occurred to you, an absurdly short amount of text upon which to base any judgment whatsoever. As I pointed out in my last post, the standards by which the rest of the world, including that large segment of it that happens to read books, gauges boredom is not really applicable to your manuscript.

Your submissions will ultimately be more successful if you edit them with an eye to the industry-specific tolerance for slowness. It’s just a fact.

Did I just hear a groan of disbelief out there? “Wait just an agent-boring minute,” I hear some of you who favor slower pacing cry, “I can’t open three books at my corner bookstore without finding pages upon pages of slow build-up. I’ve read award-winning novels where positively nothing happened until p. 42 — and even then it was subtle. So there must be agents and editors out there who appreciate slower work.”

You’re right; there are — a couple. And if your pacing tends to be on the slow side, I cannot urge you strongly enough to run, not walk, back to the bookstore where you found those gently-paced novels and take another look at them. I’d bet a nickel that they all share at least one of the following characteristics:

*The book in question is not the author’s first published book.
*The book in question was not written by an author who is still living now.
*The book in question was first published outside the United States.
*The book in question isn’t a novel.

Or, if none of these things is true, then:

*The book is self-published.
*The book was represented by an agent who picked up the author more than ten years ago.

Why am I certain? Let me take them one by one, reserving the most common for last.

If the book is older, wildly different standards of pacing used to apply, because the readers at whom new books were aimed had quite a bit more time on their hands. Remember, until the 1990 census, the MAJORITY of Americans did not live in cities. How are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm without a good book?

Now, the publishing industry aims very squarely for city- and suburb-dwellers. Commute readers, for instance, and the fine folks who listen to books-on-tape in their cars. These people have less time to read than, well, pretty much any other human beings in the whole of recorded history, as well as more stimuli to distract them, so agents and editors are now looking for books that will keep the interest of people who read in shorter bursts.

At least, US publishers have swung in this direction. In other countries, different standards prevail. Why, in the U.K., it’s considered downright stylish for nothing to happen for the first 50 pages, a pace that would make anyone in a Manhattan-based agency reject it by page 4.

One also encounters slower pacing — and more uneven pacing in general — in nonfiction books. This is often true even if the author is as American as apple pie, his agency as New York-oriented as Woody Allen, and his publisher as market-minded as, well, an NYC publisher. So why the tolerance for a slower NF pace?

Simple: nonfiction is not generally sold on the entire book; it’s sold on a single chapter and a book proposal. Thus, the agent and acquiring editor commit before they have seen the final work. This allows slower-paced books to slip through the system.

Which brings me to the first on my list (and the last in our hearts), the comparatively lax pacing standards applied to books by writers who already have a recognized fan base. Established writers have leeway of which the aspiring can only dream with envy.

The kind of dream where one rends one’s garments and goes on frustrated rampages of minor destruction through some symbolically-relevant dreamscape.

As I am surely not the first to point out, the more famous the writer, the less likely his editor is to stand up to him and insist upon edits. This is why successful authors’ books tend to get longer and longer over the course of their careers: they have too much clout to need to listen to the opinions of others anymore.

A writer seeking an agent and publisher for a first book, particularly a novel, does not have this kind of clout. Indeed, at the submission stage, the writer does not have any clout at all, which is why I think it is so important for writers’ associations to keep an eye on how their members are treated. (At a good conference, for instance, the organizers will want to know IMMEDIATELY if any of the attending agents or editors is gratuitously mean during a pitch meeting.)

Since the first-time writer needs to get her submission past the most impatient reader of all, the agency screener, she doesn’t have the luxury of all of those extra lines, pages, and chapters. The writing needs to be tight. Because only first-time authors ever hear that tedious speech about how expensive paper, ink, and binding have become.

In short, for a new novelist to break into the biz, most of the books currently taking up shelf space at her local megastore are not a particularly good guide to pacing.

The pacing bar has definitely risen in recent years. Five years ago, the industry truism used to be that a good manuscript had conflict on every single page – not a bad rule of thumb, incidentally, while you are self-editing. Now, the expectation is seldom verbalized, but agents, editors, and their screeners routinely stop reading if they are bored for even a few lines.

Particularly, as we saw in the Idol series last fall, if those few lines are on the first page of the submission.

This may seem like an odd thing to say, coming so close on the heels of last month’s series on industry faux pas, but of all the writerly sins encountered by agents, the manuscript that bores them is the most common — and among the most hated. So here’s a most sensible request for you to make of your trusted first readers, the ones to whom I sincerely hope you are showing your work BEFORE submitting it to the pros:

“Would you please mark the manuscript any time you began to feel bored for more than ten seconds?”

Such a question is not a mark of insecurity — it’s an indicator that a writer is being very practical about the demands of the publishing world now, rather than ten years ago. Or a century ago. Or in the U.K.

Keep up the good work!

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