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.
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