July 9th, 2014

What I Learned About Submissions as a Reader for an Agent

@OrlyKonigLopez

“Strong writing, great story, but I just didn’t love it.”

Any writer who’s had a manuscript on submission with an agent and received a similar reply, knows that banging-head-on-table feeling. And haven’t we all whined back at the computer at some point, “But you liked it. Come onnnnnn”?

How can an agent like your manuscript, compliment your writing and still turn you down?

Well …

Several months ago, an agent I follow posted a call for readers. I thought why not, right? Maybe I’ll finally get a glimpse behind the curtain and crack the code, right?

No codes cracked, but boy did I get a whole new appreciation for the submission process. A few of the things I learned:

1) Write a kick-ass query that fits your story. The query for one submission absolutely knocked my socks off. I knew exactly why the agent had requested that manuscript. The pages started well but the story never felt like it got out of the gate. The writing had great potential but the craft lacked maturity. After finishing, I tried marrying what I’d read with the promise from the query. They didn’t match. And sadly, the writing in the manuscript wasn’t as strong as the writing in the query.

2) Polish, polish, polish. Another manuscript was beautifully written and story kept me interested, but there were a lot of small mistakes—missed words, wrong words, etc. Some mistakes are inevitable (I don’t think I’ve ever picked up a published book without finding a couple of minor oopses), but at some point, it becomes obvious that the book didn’t get that final polishing read. And the moment it becomes obvious, it becomes distracting.

Personally, I’ve found that reading the manuscript in a different format is helpful—if you usually read it on the computer, print it out instead. Or read it on your e-reader. Change the font. Or ask a friend or critique partner with a sharp eye for a fresh read.

3) Like, love and marketability. During my time reading, there were a couple of manuscripts that, at one point or another, I honestly forgot I was reading a submission and not a published book. They were thoroughly enjoyable. One in particular I really, really liked.

Then I started writing the reader report. I was so excited about this really good book—did I mention I really liked it?—and flew through a few of the sections of the report. But the deeper into the report I got, the more I had to really think about the various elements the agent was looking for. And guess what? That really, really likeable book was missing a few key components for it to be marketable in a particular genre.

Yes, those were points that could be fixed with a re-write. Whether the agent sent a revise & resubmit, an offer with notes to revise, or a “like but didn’t love” rejection, I don’t know. But that fine line between really liking something and being able to see how it would be marketed became very clear.

4) The advantage of a reader report—on your own manuscript. So if doing a reader report on someone else’s manuscript helped shed a spotlight on what was missing, why not try it on my own work? Ummm, yeah, that was painful. It’s so much easier to be objective on someone else’s work.

But if you put those emotional months (years in some cases) aside and look at your manuscript from a business perspective, you might be surprised. I’m sure there are as many variations on reader reports as there are agents who rely on readers. Here are the items that I included in the reports I prepared and then in the report I prepared on my own manuscript:

Overview: What’s the story about. Who are the main characters, what do they want, what do they do.

Editorial assessment: How was the writing? Does it grab the reader’s attention? Was it an enjoyable read? Was the manuscript clean of mistakes?

Plot and Storyline: What’s the main plot? Do the storylines support the main theme of the book? Are all storylines plausible and realistically tied up at the end?

Conflict: Do the characters face both internal and external conflicts? Are the external conflicts realistic or contrived? Are the internal conflicts realistic or overdone?

Character development: Are the characters unique? Interesting? Do they have growth arcs?

Emotional connection: Is there an emotional connection with the characters? Do we care what happens?

Dialogue: Is it natural? Does it move the story forward? Do the characters have distinct voices?

Setting: Where does the story take place? Do the descriptions transport you there?

Recommendation: It’s hard to be objective about our own writing. Chances are, if you’re doing this for your own manuscript, your recommendation would be to take it on. 🙂

But if you go through this exercise you might be surprised what you uncover.

And what you discover about your own manuscript, just might help you go from a nice “like but don’t love” to a “love it. I want to sign you.”

About Orly

OKL-NewAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet.  When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

44 comments to What I Learned About Submissions as a Reader for an Agent

  • Great useful article. But yes, oh so hard to read your own writing with a truly critical eye. I love editing my work, but still don’t know if I’m getting it fully right. Even my most honest critiquers are often slow to tell you every flaw as they don’t want to be seen as too pedantic.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Thanks, Sally. It’s very hard to have a truly critical eye when it’s our own work. Ask one of your crit partners or a beta reader to write a reader report instead of just providing feedback. You might find that they call out other things in a format like that? 🙂

  • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist)

    Such a great, useful post and excellent reminder of the difference between “liked a lot” vs “loved”. Not long ago, I wrote a post about this idea of how, when I used to rate books on Goodreads or Amazon or whatever, that I might rate many books 4 stars, but a lot fewer were 5 stars. And 5 stars is what your agent has to think before considering representation, right? This helped a lot with my perspective. One person’s 5 star rating is not the same as another’s (hence, the “not right for me”).

    I really like this idea of creating your own reader report; I don’t know if we always edit our books with all of these questions in mind all at the same time and it seems like this would better force a holistic self-assessment. I think it’s useful to have betas use this format, too.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Thanks, Janet.
      Answering all of those questions in one sitting was eye-opening. And you’re absolutely right, one person’s love is another person’s like or even not. That’s both the beauty and heartbreak of this business.

  • Spot on, Orly. I was an editorial assistant for several years, and was surprised at what was submitted to the agent I worked for. Authors need to research the agent to see what he/she represents. A submission can be rejection simply because the agent doesn’t accept the particular genre submitted.

    Good points, good post.

  • Great post, Orly. What a unique perspective and interesting peek behind the curtain, as you said. Great advice for all of us. I’m sure you could label your work in this regard as “research.”

  • This is great, Orly! It almost seems like insider info we humble writers aren’t supposed to know. I’m going to reread and do some thinking—after I drink another cup of coffee.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Thing is, Kerry Ann, agents really do want to fall in love. They’re looking to sign new writers. That let down of reading a manuscript that you honestly like but see holes in, is brutal. And I wasn’t reading to acquire it, just recommend it. 🙂

      More coffee … good idea. Pour one for me too, please.

  • Great post. Very helpful to get that peek at a reader report. It reminds me of a workshop I attended a few years ago that was given by an agent. She talked about the difference between good vs. great and had a similar list of critical points. It’s a high bar, but that makes it so much more of an accomplishment when you sail over it!

  • Thanks for sharing a glimpse behind the curtain, Orly. Hope your experience propels you to the writerly stratosphere!

  • Thanks for sharing your behind-the-curtains view. It’s helpful to see the other side. Great tips here!

  • These kinds of posts are invaluable for writers regarding the frustration of trying to get a foot in the door. It’s hard to write a book! You’re not a failure just because your work didn’t fit a particular agent’s preferences and needs. I agree that you can’t edit your own work. You can revise and rewrite, but you need and objective eye to find the major flaws that need fixing.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      “You’re not a failure just because your work didn’t fit a particular agent’s preferences and needs” <-- YES!!!!!!!

  • Diana

    Great post, Orly! If only they had a pill for objectivity. Until then beta readers and critique groups are the best prescription.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Ha, Diana! I could use a couple of those. And a whole bottle of the patience pills. 🙂

  • Hi Orly, Great post! Could you please write a follow up article about what are the key components that make a book marketable in a particular genre?

  • Orly, you’re part of our WITS team and I didn’t know this? Any way thanks for the great blog. I love insider views.

  • Thank you for sharing this, Orly. I know it’s hard to be objective about your own work, but this list seems a good thing to pass on to my beta readers.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      It can be very hard to be objective about our own work. Not always possible, but if you can take a break from the manuscript and then read it in a different way – on your ereader for example or as a “printed book” you might be surprised.

  • I have a ways to go before I am ready to submit, but this will help fine tune my rewrites.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Good luck with the rewrites. And then knock their socks off with the submissions. 🙂

  • Thanks, Orly. I’ve been frustrated more than once by an agent who turn down a ms by saying they love the writing and the story but it’s not for them. Your breakdown provides guidance, which can’t be said for a non-specific it’s-not-for-me rejection. Too bad agents don’t send their reader report with their rejection.

  • I was fascinated by this Orly. I think it would be great to get a Beta reader, and hand them the questions above along with your manuscript! That’s one way of getting an opinion that will really be helpful!

    I admit, I thought you were nuts spending the time on this at first, but it’s clear you’re a genius, and I’m an idiot! WTG!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I am nuts, Laura, that’s a given. 🙂

      Agree on the beta read format – this might be a great way to focus readers.

  • Orly,
    Your post-loved it. I feel like I’m editing this one book for the rest of my life trying to get it right. Your info gives me another way to look at my manuscript and keep polishing.

    Beige

  • Interesting post. Agree with the editing, agree that authors must pick the right agent/publisher to send to, agree right up until the marketing bit. If you’re excited about a book *market the excitement* – some works transcend genre and demographics and designations on book store shelves and Amazon categories and that’s ok. Why should the gatekeepers keep from the world something that is exciting? Exciting is what I want in a novel rather than another bland thing same as other things that are published because they all fit a ready made marketing framework which is completely artificial anyway.

  • Good post. In your reader’s report did you put anything about marketability or was that up to the editor?

  • Great article. I’d never heard of a “reader report.” I would find it much easier to do this on someone else’s work than my own. I could hear myself answering “yes” to everything. “Yes, of course my dialogue sounds natural,” and “Yes, my story grabs the reader.” Answering “no” to the questions is like agreeing that my baby’s ears are too large for her head. But it’s a skill we all have to cultivate if we’re going to succeed in this business.

  • What a fantastic article. So informative. I was on the cusp–just getting full requests from agents when I signed with my publisher. I recognize the truth in what you say from all the revisions I had to do to get even that far.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience. This is very helpful. Thank you.

  • Similar posts on this blog site taught me to look at the subject that interests me and ask, but will it sell. I write poetry and am keeping your list for my next books. Overview and Assessments works for poetry and non-fiction too. I am asking my first readers, would you buy this if it was in a book?

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