Trying to land a book deal is like trying to land a job. In both cases, the gatekeeper (agent, in-house editor, human resources manager) has lots of applicants for the position (a slot in the Fall 2016 fiction catalogue, a job) and must narrow down the field to, ultimately, the Best One. So they screen out 95 percent of the submissions (manuscripts, résumés) before they even get started.
I can’t tell you why you didn’t land an interview for that big job you wanted. But we’ve talked about the three things publishers are looking for. And I can tell you what they don’t want to see too. Because there are things agents and editors see over and over that mark a manuscript as the work of a beginner.
1. It’s too long.
Either it’s too long for the genre, or it’s just plain too long. This means the writer wasn’t able to see for himself what needed to be trimmed—or wasn’t willing to. There may be two books in the one manuscript. Either way, excessive length is the most common problem seen by editors. We’ve talked about word count; watch it.
2. There’s no actual plot.
Oh, sure, lots of things happen. But you shouldn’t confuse action with plot. A plot (or story arc) is a series of events that are causally connected—one leads to the other. It generally starts as a problem for the protagonist and as he attempts to solve it, he experiences struggle and setbacks and growth.
3. The writing is, well, unpolished.
This includes both prose and craft issues, everything from dangling participles (actually, especially dangling participles!), awkward sentences, comma splices, using the same phrases over and over, clichés, misused words to show don’t tell, adverbial dialogue tags, leaden dialogue, exposition masquerading as dialogue, overuse of exclamation points or ellipses … Oh, I could go on and on. Poor writing usually reveals a lack of voice too.
4. There’s too much going on.
This manifests in a variety of ways: convoluted plot points that don’t make sense, for example, scenes that don’t advance the plot, or trying to cram in too many ideas or subplots. Often there are too many characters that fuel all this excess.
5. The backstory is mishandled.
It’s either too much too soon or too little too late. Most commonly there’s a big fat info dump, sometimes identified as a prologue, sometimes in the first chapter—either way, it takes all the fun out of it. The flip side is the overclever writer who withholds so much that readers lose interest because there’s not so much as a crumb of a foreshadow to grasp. Alternately, the dots are never connected: the writer knows what’s going on but it fails to appear on the page.
6. The editor rolls her eyes.
Implausibility in characterization or plot points is a common problem for beginners. Yeah, it’s fiction and we’re makin’ it up, but things have got to ring true. Unforeshadowed plot devices or character traits won’t cut it either. And remember, a coincidence that gets a character in to trouble is OK, but a coincidence that gets him out of trouble is not good fiction.
Remember, agents and acquisitions editors are looking for reasons to say no—an agent can only represent so many projects at any one time; an editor has a limited number projects he can afford to acquire. And there is an endless stream of manuscripts on offer, so if you make a lot of beginner’s mistakes in yours, it’s unlikely you’ll make the cut.
UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”