Why agents say no to your project
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:
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?
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.
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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