“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?
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.”
After 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.