I am a reader. Yes, I read books, but I mean an agent’s reader. I read requested manuscripts. I read your requested manuscript.
Readers are one of the secrets of the industry—most agents utilize them as there are simply too many manuscripts and not enough pairs of eyes. Some agents use one or two, some use eight or ten. For me, it was a fantastic opportunity to learn about both sides of the business.
Here’s how it works: when you get a material request from an agent, that manuscript is read by several different people, including the agent. The overall consensus helps the agent decide whether to keep reading—and get to that no or yes quicker.
Being an agent’s reader has been illuminating, and I’ve learned several things already. But before I tell you what those things are, there’s something you need to know: just because we readers have thoughts on what isn't working doesn't mean that you'll get a specific rejection naming what those things(s) are.
So here is what that rejection-speak could mean:
This is the problem I see most often. The action in the first few chapters is slow, and I’m talking a slug-who’s-taken-Xanax-slow. But by chapter four, bang! The action really starts.
I know. I know. You need to set up your story, and you need those first four chapters! You also need to take some the energy that often resides in chapter 4 and pull it into the first chapter to create and build that tension right from the get-go.
Try this: take a moment to think over your first four chapters. Can you identify the break—where things really pick up? As an experiment, can you delete the material up until that point? Now, do you feel the difference in energy? If your characters can think back to earlier that day when things were calmer (and boring), and work that into the action, would that still be the same story?
There are many beautiful and wonderful manuscripts out there. But the ones that really stand out are the ones with a terrific sense of voice. Those make you stand up and notice. You know this already, because you’ve been told a thousand times.
But what I am telling you is that agents see so many manuscripts that it’s mind-boggling, and the ones that stand out are the ones with a great voice. Does your story come alive right from sentence one? I don’t mean your work has to be stylized or contain a southern accent. But there should be a sense of atmosphere, tension, and personality.
If you struggle with this idea (and believe me, I know), then just remember that if you whisper, your work won’t get heard over the reams of other manuscripts in an agent’s inbox.
Try this: Rewrite a chapter in another point of view. If you wrote in third person, write in first person. If you wrote in first person, write in a stream of consciousness, as though your character was sitting across from you in a café and telling you his or her story as a friend. Does that change anything?
Your prose is great; your mechanics are all there. But something’s missing. Plot! Structure! Everything hinges on it. Your characters will fall flat if there’s no underlying structure to carry them along. Be sure that your opening chapters aren’t just snapshots of your characters la-dee-dahing. There should be an underlying sense of SOMETHING that is ABOUT TO HAPPEN that will SHAKE YOUR CHARACTER’S WORLD. (Often, that something occurs in your chapter four. See above.)
Likewise, if you have structure and your writing isn’t clean, it will still fall flat. And so on.
What I see as I read is that everything ties together, and if you’re missing just one of those elements, your manuscript could earn a rejection. Readers and agents will sense there’s something missing, but they won’t be able to tell you what it is.
Try this: Match up your plot to the Save the Cat story beats, invented by Blake Snyder. There are actually a bunch of story structure formulas out there, but Save the Cat is simple (there are 15 total beats in a story) and clear. You can check those out on www.savethecat.com or get his book. I’ve also created a beat worksheet that you can download here.
If that’s too rigid for you, then how about breaking down your story into acts: Act 1 (the set up), Act 2A, Midpoint, Act 2b, and Act 3 (the finale). Are there clear acts in your story? Is there a sense of a clear break between acts?
Finally, a last word on submissions
The three problems above are the most frequent ones I see. But readers and agents really, truly are looking for a great read. Really! We want to read something wonderful and we’re pulling for you. If your query made it to the request phase, then you’re doing something right. I’m genuinely bummed when a manuscript doesn’t work for me, because I know the writer put in his or her blood, sweat, and tears into it. I know how hard writers book, because I am one, too.
Agents know that, too. So we’re all pulling for you. Writing is hard. Story-telling is hard! You are valued, and your work is appreciated, whether it ends up getting you signed or not. That’s something that I finally got to see and understand as a reader, and I’m grateful.
What is the best or worst rejection you ever received? Do you have any tips to add to mine?
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Sierra Godfrey writes fiction with international settings and always a mention of football (soccer) or two. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and a quarterly contributor to Writers in the Storm. She writes weekly about Spanish football for various sports sites, and is also a freelance graphic designer. She lives in the foggy wastelands of the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
Come visit her at www.sierragodfrey.com or talk with her on Twitter @sierragodfrey.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
I feel like I've just been invited to the room where it happens! Thank you for these insights and the reminder about Save the Cat. Downloading your worksheet now.
Greta, Kathy!! I have also added one for Blake Snyder's 5-Step Finale, at my own website -- on the blog at sierragodfrey.com. I like this one too because it really breaks down the finale points.
Great post! Isn't it important to make the reader care about what happens? Maybe that's part of 2 and 3....
Hi Alexandra, it definitely is important to make the reader care! I don't have the answers there, but I can tell you that everything goes hand in hand in a successful ms. If the plot works, then the characters must work, and the dialog must work, and the empathy must work. Each thing must flow into the other. It's HARD, isn't it??
Great post Sierra! Just heard about Save The Cat for the first time this weekend at #WFWAPhilly16! Downloading your worksheet and sharing it with my writing group now.
I'm so glad you heard about it! I can honestly say it's changed everything for me.
Cool beans, Sierra, I didn't know you did this! I agree with you on voice - errors can be fixed, and you're more likely to want to, if there's a truly unique voice, right?
The only thing I'd add is following the rules. I'll bet you get tired of people not following them.
Thanks Laura! You know what's funny? The people whose manuscripts are requested almost ALL follow the rules!!
That's interesting, because I've heard horror stories about that! Maybe the ones who do are epic fails!
I'm surprised about it too, Laura, but remember this isn't the query slush pile, this is the requested manuscript pile. I assume the query slush has a lot of fails.
Ah, that makes sense.
Great post, Sierra.
I read for an agent a couple of years ago. Amazing experience (and one I wrote about for WITS as well 🙂 ). Totally agree with all of your points above. I'll add one more though - and this is the dreaded one we've all grumbled about - "I just didn't fall in love with it." There was one manuscript that started at the right spot, had an incredible voice, and covered all the bases. As I was writing the reader report, - I fully expected to recommend the book when I started the report - I realized that (a) it didn't fit within the genre the author was querying it as and would require a significant edit, and (b) while I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it didn't stay with me as a book that I HAD to recommend. It stayed with me as the perfect example of "I really liked it but ... " That was the first time it really hit home why agents reject manuscripts that they otherwise like/love various elements of. So yeah, they may love your voice or story premise but if the rest of the pieces don't fit for them, they'll have to turn it down. As an author, that's maddening. As an agent who receives more queries/submissions than they can possibly take on, it makes sense.
YES! And it's so subjective! My opinion is just my opinion, same with an agent's.
I think one of the most important things an agent told me in a pitch session was about cutting out the first chapter and a chunk of the second. I probably don't get right every time now but I'm aware of it, at least. Now I have to wonder if I 'whisper.'
You don't have to be too loud, but definitely get that tension up there in the first pages.
I am doing yet another edit on a MS for several of these reasons. So obvious now, but something I just didn't on previous passes. Great article!
Thanks Melissa! I hope it helps.
Agents are pulling for you. Now, there's a nice little tidbit of info thst many writers overlook.
It's so true though! They really, truly are pulling for you.
Great article today. My comment would be this: This notion of "action in the first chapter," is a style...the "in" style right now. It isn't always what great novels are made of, and it definitely is a narrative coming out of publishing. But it isn't always right for the story. "The Girl On The Train," is a prime example. Nothing happens until you read the first 100 pages (or so it seemed.) Yet, it is a highly successful book. My "style" of storytelling is not one to have "action" in the first chapter. I am, and want to be, a slow builder of personality, moral development, and philosophical thought as my characters grow. With that said, I know my style is not popular, and I am probably getting rejected for that very reason. Do I change my writing style to fit the market? Or do I find someone who believes in my writing? That is the dilemma a writer must face in this industry. Writing is a creative process, and an artist needs to express. But it is also a business and there are things that are "in" and a writer must be aware of that. If you look at the styles throughout the 20th century writers, you will see a huge style change throughout. Even during the last 15 years we have seen trends come and go. So, I write on and see where it takes me...Thank you for your information. This does help a writer to understand the industry much better.
This is a really good point, but it makes me want to clarify. When I say don't whisper, I don't mean the first pages have to have a lot of action, either. They just really need to pull you in, whether by action or voice. I firmly believe in the set up, but you've got to do that in a way that isn't boring!
I can't advise you on whether your style isn't popular, but if you have good feedback from beta readers, then you're doing something right regardless of the "in" thing. If your beta readers uniformly say "the first chapter...something's not right," then you know you should amp up the grab.
Excellent read and helpful advice! Thank you =)
Terrific article! Thanks for letting us peek behind the curtain.
This is excellent. Thank you! I had three beta readers all say, verbatim, "Wow, I loved chapter three." Guess where I focused my rewrites? Chapter three became chapter one.
I hope that felt natural to you, Melanie! Sounds like it was the right feedback.
This is a fantastic post -- it's great to hear from an insider. Thank you!!!
What a terrific post - thank you for sharing your insights.
Hi Sierra! You know I love this post. I was without a computer today (shudders) so I just approved a bunch of comments. You'll want to start from the top. This post brought some new people to WITS and they had to be approved.
Thanks again for sharing your insights. We appreciate it!
Just discovered your blog. I found this post very helpful and I look forward to future ones.
Thank you, Sierra, for this excellent article and advice. I'll go back and check out the first three chapters and whether they're needed. Thanks again.
I have hope in the world of self-publishing giants. Thank you.
[…] Laube ponders how long you should wait for an answer from an agent or editor, Sierra Godfrey lists 3 reasons your manuscript gets rejected by agents, and Janet Reid has a satisfying rant about how requiring personalization in query letters is […]
Thanks for sharing your insight. You've given me hope and confidence. Great download, I opened it with trepidation but my story fits into the structure, phew!