I’ve been a reader for a literary agent for over two years now, and a reviewer at Chick Lit Central for more than three. During this period, I’ve probably read close to 500 books and manuscripts for evaluation. At the same time, I’ve sent out queries on three books, which makes me think there’s some kind of firewall in my brain that allows me to evaluate other people’s work and suggest solutions to problems but won’t let me do that for my own.
Every book and manuscript has problems. Some are very minor; some are major. Even books with problems get well reviewed and recommended. So what’s the difference between a book that a reader bumps up the ladder, even though it needs changes, and a book that gets passed on? For me, I’ve narrowed it down to four major areas. If there’s enough good stuff in the most important areas, the problems in the others may seem fixable.
Those areas are:
Concept. The most obvious make-or-break point is right here. No matter how well written your query or pages are, if the agent doesn’t care for the concept, she’ll pass on reading the book. As a reader, I don’t get to choose which books to read. I assume if the agent has requested the manuscript, she’s already decided the concept is a marketable one. Still, everyone who reads books has specific types of stories she has a sweet spot for. For some, it’s as precise as “single girl devoted to dogs.” I am personally drawn to stories about women and children of any age. I also love stories with a mystery from the past that is solved in the present. If your concept is marketable and hits the agent’s sweet spot, that’s a huge mark in your favor.
Plot. While concept is the general story idea, plot is how that idea is executed. When I evaluate plot, I look at the standard beginning-middle-end structure. Is the pacing appropriate for the genre? Are the twists surprising, yet come directly from the conflict? Is there conflict? Does the writer seem to know what she’s doing with the structure? Plot doesn’t have to be perfect if other important elements are there. If there’s a sense that the writer has a handle on plot, it’s not a death sentence if one or two specific plot twists don’t work. That’s a problem that can be fixed. What can’t be fixed? A writer that drops plot to focus on things like back story (flashback after flashback that shed no light on present day action) or other tangents. A manuscript like that will receive a pass.
Character. There’s a huge debate in literary circles about the importance of a protagonist’s likeability, especially when it comes to female protagonists. Yet mega bestsellers have featured unlikeable female protagonists, most recently The Girl on the Train. What gives? Books like Train and Gone Girl are high-concept (their plots can be described in one sentence) with strong, twisty, mystery plots. While character is still important, it’s not quite as important as the execution and resolution of the mystery. I don’t have to want to have lunch with the protagonist, but I do need to find him intriguing and to want him to achieve his goal or learn his lesson, whichever is appropriate. If the character is unlikeable, stereotypical, stupid, lazy, or unappealing for any other reason, then the concept and plot have to be A+ to overcome that. And the other characters who populate the book have to have something going for them, too. I recently read and passed on a book with multiple characters, almost all of whom were awful people for specific and different reasons. I loved the narrative voice and descriptions, but with characters so terrible, it was too much to overcome.
Voice. I cannot overstate how important narrative voice is to the success of a manuscript. Voice is one of those things that is seen as immutable. If it doesn’t work, there’s little the writer can do but keeping writing and hope the next manuscript is better. Voice is so personal -- not just for the writer, but it’s in the reader’s head, telling the story. It has to fit the genre, and, for first person and third person limited points-of-view, the main character. Voice shows the writer’s command of language. It encompasses dialogue, scene work, description, and narration. Occasionally, a writer’s voice is inappropriate for the age group; sometimes I run across an adult story written in a voice more suitable for YA or even MG. Because voice is the glue holding everything else together, it’s hard to imagine a story where plot and character work, but voice does not. A manuscript with an awkward voice is not going to progress.
That’s why it’s so important that writers keep writing. Concepts may be weak; plots may have holes, but a writer’s voice only gets better the more time she spends getting the words down.
There’s nothing more important than a strong concept and compelling narrative voice. While plot issues can be fixed and character faults rewritten, concept and voice are immutable. If your writing is getting passed on over and over again, look in these two areas for the reasons why.