The literary version of American Idol comes to Boston

The panel of judges took their seats. The performers lined up for their turn at the microphone. The crowd quieted down in anticipation of the first audition. Old South Church in Boston’s Back Bay was the place to be yesterday for “Writer Idol,” one of the sessions held as part of the Boston Book Festival. Patterned after the popular TV show American Idol, but with a literary bent, writers were invited to submit the first 250 words of their unpublished manuscripts for the contest. Two authors took turns performing those pages and the panel of three judges—literary agents—raised their hands to get the performers to stop if they heard a line that would prompt them to stop reading. I submitted the first 250 words of my manuscript, but mine didn’t get to the top of the thick stack submitted and wasn’t read.

That was okay. The judges were brutally honest and I wasn’t sure how well I’d stand up to the criticism. However, I came away with great tips from the agents.

  • Agents love to discover news voices. Don’t be discouraged if you’re trying to pitch your first book.
  • How much room an agent has on his or her list for adding a new talent can weigh into how far the agent will read the manuscript.
  • Query widely. What might not be a good fit for one agent, will be a great find for another.
  • Agents have “the remote control from hell” in their hands. Find an opening that draws them in right away.
  • Don’t “info-dump.” Don’t cram lots of information into your first pages that can be told as the story goes on.

At the end of “Writer Idol,” a winner was chosen, one of the few writers whose work was read onstage without interruption by the judges. Her prize? One of the agents asked her to come up to the stage. She wanted to see the entire manuscript.

 

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