Why agents say no to your project

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Today I want to report on my request to review category romance proposals that I made in a blog post a few weeks ago. But even if you don’t write category or didn’t submit a proposal, I’ll write about my impressions in the larger context of why an agent turns down a fiction project so the post can be instructive to every novelist, even if he or she doesn’t write category romance.

I received the following submissions based on category:

15 Contemporaries

9 Historical Romances

8 Romantic Suspense

I chose to ask for two full manuscripts, one romantic suspense and one contemporary. Yeah! (You’ll both be hearing from me today.)

Now, why did I decide to select those two and the others?

WRITING

The majority of the projects had problems with the writing. Not just problems that little tweaks could fix, but writing issues that require a major reworking. Some of them included:

* Overwriting. I saw a number of projects with fetching ideas, but the sample chapters were overwritten. By that I mean too many adjectives and adverbs were used to try to convey details. Many words were used rather than relying on a slender selection of choice words. That made the writing dense; it felt like hard work to read some chapters because the story wasn’t moving forward at a nice clip.

Writing hint: As you decide what to keep in your story, ask yourself what moves the story forward and what stalls that forward momentum.

*Beat structure off. By “beat,” I mean how attribution is used during dialogue. You don’t always need to tell the reader who is talking, the reader knows based on the beat, whose turn it is to speak. You also shouldn’t rely on adverbs to convey the tone in which a comment is made. (For example, “I’m afraid not,” she murmured softly. There’s no need for “softly.”)

Writing hint: Study how accomplished authors handle dialogue. How often do they use attribution? How does the author convey the tone of a character’s words?

*Not knowing when to provide details about characters, when to introduce characters, when to unveil backstory, and how much backstory to include in the manuscript. Especially in the first chapters of a book, the writer is tempted to pack in too much information. Most details about your characters and your manuscript’s setting need to be doled out slowly.

Writing hint: Everything is new in your world to the reader, and while she needs enough context not to be lost,  gradually braid details into your story.

*POV jumping. Simple rule: You can’t bounce from one character’s mind into another character’s head in the same scene. The reader needs to be inside one character at a time. It’s confusing for the reader not to have this type of stability, and even if the reader can follow whose POV she’s in, the reader doesn’t have a chance to experience that entire scene from a single POV, and that tends to denude the scene of emotional impact for the reader.

Writing hint: Think of POV as being a hat with a camera on it. Put the hat on a character’s head and don’t pass it on to another character until a new scene. Now, tell us what that camera takes in. If that character can’t see something or know something, you, the writer, must respect those limitations.

*The mix of dialogue and narrative wasn’t balanced. One story didn’t have any dialogue in the first chapter.

Writing hint: Think about what narrative accomplishes in moving a story forward and what role dialogue plays in keeping the book’s momentum going. Don’t let yourself become stuck in one type of writing, but keep the reader interested by being balanced.

STORY LINE

Some writers were unfamiliar with category romance guidelines such as:

–a story structure that wouldn’t work for Love Inspired or Barbour (promiscuity or  a salacious killer’s POV).

–an unlikeable heroine.

–the romantic leads not meeting in the first chapter.

WHAT CAUSED ME TO REQUEST THE TWO FULL MANUSCRIPTS?

*The story idea wasn’t “standard” but offered something a little different (but not over-the-top).

*The story had a simple, straightforward approach without introducing lots of issues that had to be resolved satisfactorily within the word count.  The plot felt right for a book of 55,000-60,000 words.

*The writer avoided the pits listed above and showed a good understanding of how to tell the story well.

Thank you to each of you who submitted. I know it’s a vulnerable moment to send your writing to an agent to read. You were brave! I hope the above remarks help you to understand where to concentrate your efforts on as you continue to grow as a writer.

I often say that getting published is a process that takes many steps to reach the goal. You’re in that process, and as long as you keep working at the craft and learning, you’re smarter and closer to your goal today than you were yesterday. Keep on!

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72 Comments

  • Kate says:

    This is such helpful advice. I need to post this list of pitfalls next to my computer to make sure I avoid them!

  • Jeanne T says:

    Janet, what a great opportunity you offered writers by asking for submissions. And even greater that you offer suggestions for all of us. I love this checklist. As I revise my current story, I’m planning to refer back to your list to make sure my story is strong before I submit it.

    Thank you for this!

  • Great list, and a must for writing classes.

    The best advice I ever received was to avoid the ‘sensibility story’, one in which the protagonist’s sensitivity to the sufferings of others is overemphasized.

    Yes, characters are supposed to feel empathy, but when each chapter becomes a showcase of ‘look how nobly this person bears the sufferings of the world’, it is no longer time to put the book lightly aside.

    It should instead be thrown with great force. (Yes, ancient joke, but I still like it.)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, that’s great advice. Thanks for sharing it with us. This pitfall is one of those in which the writer needs to do this careful dance between having an emotionally hardened character and having an overly-sensitive creature.

      • Very true, Janet. It can be hard to draw that distinction – the difference between pathos and bathos can be quite small.

        Also, in avoidance of sensibility one can tend toward the Hemingway trap of romantic understatement. His descriptions of armed conflict don’t ring true because he tries to understate something which is by definition wildly ‘overstated’ in its reality.

        My feeling is that simplicity is best. “When she saw how ill her sponsored child really was, she wept” is far more effective than “Her heart shattered when she saw the condition of the child whose smiling picture resided on her refrigerator, back in peaceful Skokie. She felt the tears well up in her eyes, and she thought they would never cease.”

        In the latter…we’ve quite forgotten about the child, haven’t we?

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Andrew, what a potent example. You’re right. I focused on the crier, not the child.

  • Norma Horton says:

    Janet, this is a GREAT post, and I’ve shared it because the information is so clear and you share it with patient kindness. I’m sure everyone who reads it will appreciate knowing some of the parameters for acceptance, which can be a little hard to unearth sometimes. Thank you. NLBH

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Norma, thanks for sharing. When a person reads proposals all the time, it’s easy to spot these issues, but that’s just another example of the bird’s eye view an agent has of the industry. Trust me, we have lots of info to draw from.

  • I agree with Jeanne — what a great opportunity you presented, Janet. I’ve been reading a few LI novels, researching :) . The one I’m in now has been wonderful…until page 41 when the author head-hopped. I went back a few paragraphs to make sure I had read correctly. Then it happened again a few pages later. It really throws a reader off.

    Do the category romances allow for a bit more description? General contemporary fiction seems so sparse, yet some of the LI-inspired books remind me of what was popular several years ago. Not that it’s overdone, but throughout the story there is a bit more suggestion of how the characters look and the setting. Great checklist!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Megahn, that’s an interesting observation about the LI novels compared to other contemporaries. I suppose, since the LI books are romance, they dip more into the character’s appearance and the setting. (How can I guy fall in love with a girl if he doesn’t notice her lush locks and her dimpled smile?)I really think you’re observing an element that’s true of all romances.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m so glad you reported back! I can just imagine how those two folks who got requests for fulls must be feeling. It’s invaluable to walk your readers through the submission process like this. So often it all seems to be cloaked in mystery and you’ve really helped make it much clearer. Plus, it’s a great story you’ve got unfolding here!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Thanks, Sarah. I’m glad to demystify the process a bit. I suppose it does seem as if editors and agents are arbitrary in their decisions, but generally we have compelling reasons behind those yes/no’s.

  • Not long ago, I would not have understood most of what you’re saying — especially about head-hopping. Now, it all resonates… I guess I’m trying to encourage aspiring authors to be patient with the learning curve. There will never be a substitute for humility, teachability, and perseverance in this industry. Barbara Curtis encouraged me along these lines at Mt Hermon years ago; I took her words to heart, and am so appreciative I had that chance conversation with her.

    I agree with Sarah above… “you’ve got a great story unfolding here.”

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Bill, thanks for the reminder (via Barbara Curtis) that humility, teachability and perseverance will take you a long way in this industry. I’d say you’re doing a splendid job of incorporating those into career.

  • Great list, Janet! I’m excited for the two people who received requests for fulls! Woohoo!

    I remember receiving my first-ever contest results back. They said some nice things about my writing but said I strayed from deep POV. I had no clue what that was, but was determined to find out. I think learning what that was and reading books on it was incredibly helpful in making my stories delve deeper into a character’s psyche. It helped me as the writer figure out my character’s motivations on a deeper level than before.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Lindsay, in a sense, you DID win that contest. You came away with a golden insight that showed you how to move your story forward…Well, you had to LEARN how to move your story forward, but you knew what your next “class” should be.

  • Jill Kemerer says:

    Ooh, this post is speaking my language! :) I’m a huge fan of Love Inspired books. The writing is tight, covers are gorgeous, and I always feel spiritually uplifted. Can’t beat that! Hope the two authors you’re contacting have a wonderful day!

    (There are several books available on writing romance–worth reading for anyone interested in the genre. I’m re-reading Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. It’s terrific!)

  • Wow, Janet! This checklist covers many of the items I learned in my first couple of writing conferences. You may have just saved a few writers from years of frustration.

    Even now, I tend fill my first drafts with lots of backstory and overwriting. During the second round, I go through with a machete and cut away the needless fluff.

  • Good morning Janet.

    Fist, lett me saye how onnered i am dat you chowz mi werk.

    Okay, not really.

    Best tip ever?

    One thing that helped me learn how to write somewhat adequately, was to read the works of writers who held me spellbound. Not just books I loved, but books that held me so tight that I willingly gave up sleep.

    There are so many worthy and wonderful craft books, but at some point, one must dissect the masters and take what is the core of their work, the essence of the storytelling magic, and apply that to one’s own voice.
    For me, that study boiled down to a)how much suffering can I hand out b)how bad does the heroine misinterpret the hero’s early words and vice versa
    c) how much will he fight to love her back from the edge of the abyss
    and d) how often is God’s love spoken as blunt truth, and how deftly can I weave in layers of allegory so that I’m not preaching.

    In a nutshell, learn from the best, then do your homework and learn how to tell a story.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      That’s great advice, Jennifer. I think one of the most effective learning tools is to dissect a novel looking at one aspect of it, say, dialogue, and learn as much as possible about how the author handled it.

  • Megan says:

    Janet,

    Thank you for this lovely, concise writing lesson!

    About the no-dialogue-in-the-first-chapter problem you mentioned…I’m guilty!

    I was wondering if there is ever a situation where this might be okay. My story is romantic, but not a category romance, told from the heroine’s perspective only, in third person. It’s just that the heroine happens to be in the middle of the woods by herself as she works her way through the story-opening struggle, in which she meets the hero, at the end of chapter one.

    I’ve brainstormed/written dozens of alternate openings where there could me more character interaction, but nothing rings as true to my story as my no-dialogue opener. :-(

    • Megan, I’m not familiar with your story, or your heroine’s goals for the first chapter, but one suggestion is using her memory to bring about a conversation from the past. Done well, this could offer character sympathy, a smidge of backstory, as well as dialogue. This is just one idea, but I’m sure the others here could offer more. :)

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Thanks for that suggestion, Gabrielle. That certainly would be an effective way to accomplish several goals in that first chapter.

      • Megan says:

        Thanks for the suggestion, Gabrielle. I’ve got a few direct quotes during my heroine’s reflection periods, but perhaps I could do more along these lines!

    • Sharyn Kopf says:

      This is an intriguing conundrum, Megan. Could she have a conversation with God, even just here & there? You know, in between leaping over streams and skipping around boulders. I have a scene – though not the first one – where my character is hiking alone. So, at first, she’s talking to herself/thinking out loud. Then it becomes a debate with God/prayer.

      I’ve just found that when I’m alone (which is a lot), there’s always some kind of dialogue going on. Maybe because I’m a crazy single lady, but still …

      Anyway, just a thought. :)

  • Thanks for the update Janet.
    Your comments about speaker attribution ring very true. I especially notice overuse when I listen to audio books. Redundancy in this area is jarring to the listener.
    I’ve received wonderful writing tips on scene construction on K. M. Weiland’s website.
    http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

  • Carrie says:

    While I cannot for the life of me write romance, I am glad to have read this blog today. It really helps to know what a piece of writing may be missing, and how to work on it.

  • When I first started studying the craft of writing I came across something that I’ll always remember. When a reader picks up your book, they want to worry. At first it made me stop in my tracks and think: “Who would want to willingly worry?” But as I started to really think about it, I realized it’s true. If we’re not worried while we’re reading a book, why would we continue to the end–hoping and praying everything will turn out well? As I write, I’m always asking myself: “Is the reader going to worry about my characters in this scene, this chapter, this book?” In order to worry, the reader has to first like my characters, relate to my characters, feel what my characters are feeling, and have hope that there will be a good outcome. Am I doing all of that? So the best advice I received, and that I can give, is make your reader worry!

  • Thanks Janet for helpful hints on what an agent/editor/publisher wants.
    It’s one thing to say a “good story”…but you’ve provided clues…beat, when to provide details, and an usual story idea.

    I have to say the best tip I’ve ever had is the one you gave for POV…I’ve struggled with this, I’m a great head hopper…I think ’cause so many characters live in my mind, and they all wanna talk at once…LOL…The hat with a camera makes sense…and I intend to only let one at a time wear it!! I’m just hoping I don’t have to break up any wrestling matches.

    Have a wonderful Monday…and a beautiful week!

  • Oh, if only we could all get this type of feedback. Janet, thank you for going into such great detail on the submissions you received. Many of these tips can apply to a variety of genres, so it’s helpful to see this information broken down.

    One quick question, how often is third person omniscient used these days? I don’t write that way, but I have read it from time to time. When I read it, I feel very distracted; as if the narrator is trying to steal the story from the characters. Is that ever used in romance?

    Thanks.

  • Thank you for the advice, Janet. This comes right on the heels of a proposal rejection, so it is helping me as I lick my wounds and prepare to get right back into the saddle.
    God’s perfect timing. :)

  • Thank you, Janet, for asking for the submissions and giving feedback to the rest of us. Your comments about what makes an agent say no to a piece of writing are essential for a writer of any genre to keep in mind. I am planning to share them with my writing critique group this Wednesday. Balancing narration and dialogue is something I strive for. I have to watch myself as I can lean towards dialogue. Leaking backstory little by little is a challenge too, especially since I’m writing a fantasy. Recently, I wrote a chapter that I knew had too much backstory in it, but I felt all of the information needed to be told at that point in the story. After getting away from the chapter for a couple of weeks, I was able to go back and eliminate all but a few nuggets that are germane to the moment. Some of the cut backstory will be revealed later, but I’ve realized that much of it is information that only I need to know and that can be put in another book if this novel becomes the first in a series.

    One comment that you made is especially helpful to me in regards to my critique group. I’ve been aware for a long time that writing a tagline such as”she murmured softly,” is not only redundant, but is a sign of amateur writing. Three members of my critique group, however, keep telling me to add adverbs. For example, last week I wrote the tagline, “she retorted.” My critique partners insisted that I should write, “she retorted sharply.” I argued that the word “retorted” indicates a sharp tone. They said that I needed to reinforce the idea that the character was upset. I just said, “Okay,” and moved on. I have not added “sharply” to the tagline. They say this kind of thing quite often, though, so I had begun to doubt myself. Thank you for strengthening my conviction that the best thing to do is to use a strong verb. Also, it helps to hear you say that, when two characters are having a conversation, taglines are not needed after every line of dialogue. I know this from my reading, but again, I have critique partners who want me to put who said it and how she said it every time. I had no doubt about that one, but maybe when they hear it from an agent, they’ll finally believe me.

    Have a great week.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Christine, I’m so glad I could reinforce what you already knew about dialogue attribution. There comes a time (or 20) when an author must listen to her gut rather than her critique group! If we only knew which times those were…

  • Dear Janet,
    You are not only an agent, but a wonderful editor and teacher. Thank you so much for your insightful advice on how to improve our writing, and thus the books we long to see in print.
    I loved your use of the word “braid” in bringing details into the story. Immediately saw a girl’s long blond pigtail hanging down her back, with a bright strand of ribbon running through it.
    Good luck with the books and Congratulations to the writers!

  • Preslaysa says:

    Great post, Janet. I’ll definitely take these writing tips to heart, especially the overwriting. I had cut some weasel words from one of my WIPs and was surprised to see 600 words shaved off the total word count. I am also learning that I don’t have to repeat myself in a manuscript, usually if I say it once in the story, the reader got the message :-)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Preslaysa, thank you for expressing something I wanted to say in my blog, but I was way over my word limit already! (I know your angst, oh, ye writers.) We should trust the reader to be an intelligent reader. Sometimes we feel we’ve placed that attribute with a person undeserving of it, but for the most part, readers get it. And if they don’t get it, they can go back and read it again!

  • Thank you for this post, and thanks for all the great posts you guys put out! I’ve been following Book & Such’s blogs since the beginning of the year, and I have learned SO much in the process. You guys have been a huge blessing in my writing endeavors.

  • lisa says:

    I have been guilty of all of the above. This summer I set my manuscript aside and read almost fifteen craft books. It has been so fun to go back to the manuscript now and make it what it should be. I also learn something every day from this blog. It’s been invaluable to my journey.

  • Anna Labno says:

    My mistake was to read too many craft books on writing. I stopped reading fiction because I didn’t have time. What I discovered recently was that it was easy for me to write nonfiction articles, 1,600 words within an hour. No wonder. I have been reading nonfiction books for so long. So, my fiction didn’t move anywhere.
    So I advise you to read what you want to write. Read a lot. Don’t get bombarded with rules. Because if you’re a perfectionint, you’ll never finish that book.

  • Anna Labno says:

    Janet,

    I’m guilty of reading too many craft books. I can’t stop.
    I read about forty books about the craft of writing in the last two years. I didn’t find much time to read fiction because I work full time. That’s a huge mistake writers can make. You should read what you write–a lot. I was a better writer when I was reading a lot of fiction. Now, it’s hard for me to switch gears after reading so many nonfiction books, or blogs, or articles on writing.
    The good part is many of these rules stick to my mind. The bad part is I move slowly with my writing because I’m afraid to get it wrong.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Anna, thanks for reminding us of the importance of balance. If we have to choose between reading in our category or genre vs. a craft book, we’ll innately learn more from reading good writing. The best of both worlds is studying the fiction we read and honing in on one aspect of the writing. We can learn a ton that way.

  • Anne Love says:

    Thank you so much Janet. I’m in the process of editing this very thing. I had a request of a full MS at ACFW and I keep feeling tempting to rush the edit so the person doesn’t forget me. But then I keep hearing God’s voice saying, “just relax into this”–no rushing required for these kinds of lessons and learning. With this post I feel I should take my time, hone my craft well, work extremely hard to take these lessons to every page, and make it the very best example of my work before I hit send. I’ve got a lot of word hacking to do, and it might take me a while.

    I had all Sunday afternoon on the couch to work on this, but when your youngest son, who is a senior, sits with you all afternoon wanting to spend time with you—you don’t pass that up.

    So, I’m feeling the tension. Don’t miss the golden moments with my son, and don’t rush the work that needs to be done. It sounds like you’d much rather a request be well worked on and take a little longer, than rushed and rejected.

  • carol hedges says:

    A very interesting post, Janet, and good to hear the ”other side”. However, you can get it wrong!! My (ex) agent was very dismissive of my latest project, saying she was not even going to send it out as it was a waste of her time. On the strength and unpleasantness of her reaction, and having done a rewrite as she suggested, to no avail,we parted company. The book was snapped up in one month by an up and coming Independent publisher and launches in December. Go figure.

    • Congratulations, Carol! Best wishes for the launch.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Carol, of course we agents can get it wrong. Good publishing involves one’s gut instinct. If an agent feel strongly that a book will garner lots of attention, that agent usually is right…but not always. We take a risk with every writer we choose to represent and every book we submit to publishers that our instincts are right. If they weren’t correct the majority of the time, we can’t make a living and neither can our clients.
      I suspect your ex-agent was thinking about what traditional publishers are looking when she responded unenthusiastically. Those publishing requirements are very different from an independent publisher.

  • I’m saving your post today. Thanks for this great advice. Every day I learn a little more, and I’ll definitely put these tips to good use.

    Thanks again!

  • Janet,
    What a terrific post! This will fit into the Redwood Writers Conference “First Page” panel pre-publicity! If you recall, this will be two or three agents looking over the first page of a manuscript and telling the audience why they would continue to read the manuscript…or why not. If attendees read your post, we’ll get many more “thumbs up” pages!
    Thanks again,
    Thonie Hevron

  • Steven Buchanan says:

    “Think about what narrative accomplishes in moving a story forward and what role dialogue plays in keeping the book’s momentum going. Don’t let yourself become stuck in one type of writing, but keep the reader interested by being balanced.”

    I’m wondering if you can offer a Dialogue/Narration ratio. I understand enough not to try off-setting a solid page of narration with a solid page of dialogue, but surely there’s an equation for the overall “balance” you mention. Perhaps there’s an ideal word count of narration between quotes.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Steven, there is no narration-dialogue ratio. It depends on the type of story you’re writing, how fast the pace of the story needs to be, and what will keep the reader engaged.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    This was a most helpful post. Thank you for the information!

  • Thanks for sharing so many helpful things to look for before submitting, Janet. I plan to read my whole MS outloud before sending it to you!

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