A few weeks back, I asked you all for input on what you’d like to hear more about here on the blog in coming months, and received a number of lovely suggestions. Among them was a question from Jacquelyn Ayres regarding manuscript rejection, and if I’d ever taken on a project for a writer after having rejected a previous manuscript. The short answer is yes, I have, but the actual response is more complicated, so today I’m going to chat a bit about rejections in general, and all the reasons that might lurk behind any given negative response.
As an agent, I generally consider projects at two levels: partial manuscript and full manuscript. Queries go through the agency and get screened there, and when I request material at a conference, I mostly ask for at least a partial. So when I sit down to consider material, I’m starting off with the first three chapters.
What Do I Look for in a Partial?
Partial manuscripts need to pull me in, hold my attention, and leave me anxious to read more. I’m already interested in the premise, or I never would have gotten to the partial stage, so at this point I’m looking to get wowed by the execution. I want a vivid voice, good characterization, a strong opening paragraph, steady build of tension, a nice blend of action and narrative with an emphasis on showing vs. telling, and a high level of general mechanics — word choice, rhythm, grammar, etc.
And I’m looking for an excuse to stop reading.
That may sound harsh, but the reality is that I have an in-box full of manuscripts waiting for my attention, so any serious flaw in the first three chapters — which have ostensibly been written and rewritten and polished and critiqued — will lose me. If the first three chapters don’t hold up, I have little hope for the complete manuscript and so I will pass.
Please keep in mind, that’s a pass for the project, not the author. I’m always happy to take a look at another project down the line. Writers get better at their craft, so the potential of one project rarely has much to do with the potential of the next one.
What about Complete Manuscripts?
Things get tricky when we get to the full manuscript because the longer the material, the more places there are for me to say no. I go in looking for a continuation of the promise I saw in the partial — all the same qualities, plus the addition of excellent pacing that keeps up through the end of the manuscript, a lack of plot holes, a strong climax, and a satisfying resolution. I also want to lose myself in the story; in essence, I want to forget I’m reading an unpublished work and feel like I’m reading something I picked up at my local bookstore. The closer I can get to that feeling, the more excited I get about a project.
But the reality is that I still reject most full-length manuscripts, for many reasons, but 98% of the time, those reasons can be boiled down to “I don’t feel like I can sell this.”
At the end of the day, publishing is a business, so there is a difference between not liking a book and not thinking you can sell a book. I need to have both to take on a project — enthusiasm for the story and the writing and the author on a personal level, as a reader, and also a gut feeling that I can sell the work. If I love a project but don’t think I can sell it, well, there’s not a lot of point in my taking it on.
Most manuscripts I reject are not ready for publication. Most writers send out work that still needs to be edited and revised. Many unpublished writers who are submitting material are still in the early stages of learning their craft and acquiring the skills they need to be successful writers, and in these instances it’s likely that they will write one or two (or more) additional projects before they break out and publish something. In other cases the writer is close, but the project itself has major flaws — issues with motivation, believability, plot holes. Sometimes a project is well written but too predictable or too similar to what’s already in the market, while lacking a spark of originality to set it apart. Other projects have poor or non-existent resolutions.
If I love a project and believe that I could sell it if only one or two issues are resolved, I will let a writer know that I’d consider revisiting the manuscript if they make certain edits. The ball is entirely in their court; they don’t need to take my advice if they disagree with my suggestions, or if they decide to keep looking for an agent willing to take the project on as is. But on occasion those writers do consider my comments and come back with a revised submission — and I have been known to sign clients as a result.
But Do I Ever Just Not Like Something?
Very rarely do I read a full manuscript and just dislike it. I’d say that’s only happened one or two times since I’ve become an agent. And that’s not because I’m easy to please, but because I generally rule out projects that aren’t to my taste long before I reach the full-length manuscript stage. So while I’ve rejected projects from a writer only to sign them on for a later work, I’ve always had some level of interest and enjoyment in the earlier manuscripts. When I pass because I don’t “love something enough,” it’s not because I don’t love it at all, but because it’s not where it needs to be or because it isn’t something I believe I can sell.
Sometimes the submissions process can be magical. A writer submits a project, I love it, and I offer representation. But mostly it’s a process, where I might read a partial for a project and reject, then get to a full manuscript with that writer’s next project, and perhaps sign them on a third. The journey varies from writer to writer, and project to project, as does every aspect of the writer’s career.