Picture this. Your good friend texts you to say he just got home from a first date. You call him right away to see how it went.
“Well?” you ask.
He says, “Meh.”
“Just meh? Why just meh?”
You can practically hear him shrug. “She was nice-looking, smart, kind, and interesting. But I’ve met a lot of girls who are nice-looking, smart, kind, and interesting. This one was no different.”
Believe it or not, many manuscripts get rejected for the same reasons that this hypothetical date didn’t work out.
There is a lot of competent writing out there. Editors’ desks are piled high with submissions from writers who have MFAs, endorsements from important people, and impressive query letters. With enough practice, fortitude, patience, determination, study, and seriousness, it’s possible that almost every writer can become a relatively strong writer.
But let’s face it: Because there are so many good writers, editors and literary agents are often looking for writers who are more than good. They want the X factor. They want to have their socks knocked off.
Let’s replay our first date situation.
“Well?” you ask. “How did it go?”
“Incredible,” your friend says. “Amazing! Great! She was pretty, smart, nice, and interesting!”
“Really? What made this one different than all the others who were pretty, smart, nice, and interesting?”
“She was everything they were,” he says. “PLUS a little more. I think she’s the one.”
Oftentimes, literary agents will describe their reactions to a given work in terms of love. “I really wanted to fall in love with this project, but I just didn’t,” they’ve been known to say.
If you want a literary agent or editor to fall in love with your manuscript, you MUST make a big mental leap.
Some writers take years to come to this realization, but you can come to it right now—if you’re truly open to it. Are you ready for this?
Here’s the revelation:
Want to get noticed? Want to be the one?
Go the extra mile. Transcend good. Break out of the hordes of competent writers. Push yourself. What can you do that’s bigger? Better? More?
(HINT: In order to know how you stack up against the competition, you’ve got to know what the competition is. And that means reading, reading, reading. If you’re not reading regularly and voraciously, it’s like you’re asking to be put on the Olympic figure skating team having studied Olympic-level talent only once or twice.)
So—if you think your writing is good, but literary agents and editors just aren’t that into you, it may be time to up your game. To dig deep and find your own personal X factor.
But don’t worry. We’ve got real, practical, concrete tips that are going to help you make the leap from “pretty-good date” to “dynamite date.” Just stay tuned to Submit Write Now! next week.
And remember: If you’ve been wishing on shooting stars that someone would come along and help you make your submissions, it’s time to put away the telescope and submit your writing to Writer’s Relief’s Review Board!
READ MORE: How To Amp Up Your X Factor
QUESTION FOR YOU: Have you ever encountered writing that is “just okay”? What made it mediocre? Why didn’t it stand out to you?
I find it difficult to get interested in writing with too many adjectives or stories that don’t get started in the first paragraph/page.
“Over-writing” kills my interest. Too many adjectives, too much explanation, backstory, redundancy — that sort of thing will have me closing a book quickly.
I get bored when there’s no mystery–when everything is “what you see is what you get.”
Prologues. Explanatory opening paragraphs. Unnecessary physical descriptions. Adverbs and adjectives that are just there for show. Someone who mistakes poetry for prose. Intrusive narrators. I want to be lost in the story, and involved in conflicts that mean something to the characters; at that point I might crave detail. But don’t assume.
Show, don’t tellâ€”I think that concept alone can take any agent’s reaction from “Meh” to “Wow, I am SO in love!” Trim the excess, the superfluous details, the unnecessary explanations and the obvious motifs, and get to the meat of the story! Agents are, at the heart of it, readers. All readers prefer to be ‘shown’ the story rather than ‘told’ the storyâ€”the same goes for agents!
Caitlin’s comment just goes to show how difficult it is to strip something down to its essence: “Trim the excess, the superfluous details, the unnecessary explanations…” While that might sound good, it’s basically 3 ways of saying the same thing. But see, I LIKE words, even those that might be superfluous. If it weren’t for beautiful descriptions of dappled sunlight on verdant lawns, we’d be stuck with “See Spot Run.”
Marco, You make a very good point! We’re glad you’ve brought this up because we want to emphasize that there is certainly a gray area when it comes to revising and cutting away the “excess”â€”it is up to each author to decide whether or not a description is excessive. In a short poem, “dappled sunlight on verdant lawns” may be absolutely necessary, while in the text of a murder mystery, it may just be distracting. Removing clumsy details is very different from stripping language to its most minimal “See Spot run.” The object is not to remove all description (and beauty!) from the language, but to remove the words that are not doing any work. All readers, agents included, are looking for that little something extra, but not so much extra that they’re tripping over the words. Moderation and discretion are important when drawing these lines.
I feel that every story should contain a premise. An argument from which a conclusion may be drawn In one book. “The Crossing” the minor premise is the power of youth and their ove of country. The major premise deals with a mother’s love for her son which remains steadfast regardless of all expectations or prospect.
At times I have authored things, books, short stories, without realizing that a premise was actually behind my thinking. As I look back I realize that those which attracted agents and publishers contained premise.
Richard (a.k.a. Carson Clay), You’re very rightâ€”just as an effective essay has a thesis, an effective story has a premise.
Hmm…pretty, smart, nice, and interesting? Judging by the amount of depressing grind on the market, I was under the impression literary agents want to be able to go to the publisher and say, “This one is really good. It actually makes me want to kill myself – it’s that good!”
Richard, Your comment is funny but your observation is true. Fads are another important factor in determining which manuscripts get published and which do not. The same vampire novel that got passed on a few years ago might be scooped up immediately if sent to agents todayâ€”or perhaps vampires are already passÃ©! At Writer’s Relief, we update our research regularly in order to keep track of such changes in the market.
My take on this is totally different: yes, make your language clearer. Yes, show, don’t tell, fine, all well and good. However, I can think of many books that didn’t promise an instant reward, which likely wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s marketplace, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH. For those who haven’t read it, he builds dazzling, intricate sentences that go on for pages and pages! I can just see some agent from one of these celebrity book mills poring over it: “Ah, geez, I’m getting a headache! Sorry, kid, it just doesn’t blow me away.” Unfortunately, the modern expectation of being “blown away” has led to a lot of formula crap being spewed on the literary assembly line, things that will be forgotten except by the immediate friends and relatives of the folks involved.
I disagree with almost all of these comments. Writers live to express themselves. I am sorry that “soundbite nation” can’t focus long enough to appreciate the description of something.I wonder how Diana Gabaldon managed to get “Outlander” past an editor and sell all those historical romances with all that pesky description. I suppose now if she tried she’d be rejected, or at the very least told to add a vampire.
Anita, Thank you for your comment. You make some great points. We will soon be posting an article about how to write description that catches the eye.
If I can’t get past the first 10 pages then I stop reading the book. That’s if it is a novel.
Jerry, You’re a very generous reader! Some people won’t even look past the cover art, much less the first ten pages.
For me less is pretty much always more. Excessive use of adjectives and adverbs makes prose look self-indulgent and pretentious imho. Mind you, what the hell do I know? I haven’t even finished my first book yet! (By the way, I agree with everything you say)
..and read Cormac McCarthy, I meant to add!
Today because of CreateSpace and other sites, WE, WRITERS, CAN BE NOT THAT INTO EDITORS AND AGENTS! I recently submitted my book, My Mother Killed Christ: But God Loves Me Anyway to a NY Agent. It is my memoir as a 1960s Catholic schoolgirl whose mother believed she killed Jesus. Early chapters describe how I was locked in the basement and sexually abused in exchange for cigarettes for my mother. The agent wrote back: very strong writer, but the character of the mother is too cruel to be believable. Really? Character? I published myself and am doing great and getting $5.46 per copy. Again, maybe we are not that into you…anymore!
I think there are two different kinds of novels being discussed here. There are the “Big Mac” novels — quick, easy to get at, gulp it down, and move on to the next. Then there are the Filet Mignon with All the Trimmings novels which revel in gorgeous language, depth of story, full character development, meticulous plotting. Both have their place but they have very, very different target audiences.
When I open a novel I want to be immersed in a world. I want to get to know the characters and savor spending time with them, when the story is over I want it to linger in my mind for days. When I read some of the popular genre books — stripped down language, fast-paced story, formula characters — I usually wind up feeling like I just wasted the couple of hours it took to read.
Fortunately there are both writers and readers for both kinds of novels.
Kathleen, You make a great point! Thanks for your comment!
I totally agree with Chairman Ralph.
Hah! Love the dating analogy. Here’s what just happened to me this week after sending an agent a query. She got back to me within an hour (unheard of, right?) and “Blackberried” me that she would love to talk but was heading to a weekend conference. She’d call Monday, she said. It’s Tuesday. Think I ever heard from her? I really did feel like we were dating and somehow between “love to talk” on Friday and Monday, she realized she just wasn’t that into me.
Debby, We’ll keep our fingers crossed for you!
“Want to get noticed? Want to be the one?
Go the extra mile. Transcend good. Break out of the hoards of competent writers….”
Insert your motivational poster snippet, here.
Look, I’m sure this is all wonderfully motivating for some. But the advice falls utterly flat when held up against the seemingly endless stream of lackluster wordsmithing that makes it onto the shelves after already making it past the supposed critical eye of editor and agent alike. Are we to believe that so much bland literature actually went “the extra mile” where the editor and the agency are concerned? Really? And don’t get me started about the lack of proofreading in publishing circles these days. This is one of the reasons why success stories like Amanda Hocking scare the heck out of the publishing industry. From the consumer’s point of view, judging from the range of quality that hits the shelves, the gatekeepers (ie. the editors and the agents) have been seemingly throwing the keys to people at random. Add in a shoddy distribution system (in comparison to ebooks) inflated costs (and, thus, prices) and the publishing industry seems to be less and less relevant to those who simply want a good read at a reasonable price.
Now, from the writer’s perspective, above all else, authors need to remember who it is they are writing for (apart from themselves, that is. For a real writer that should be a given.) Is it the handful of staff at the publishers? Their agent? Or the thousands (possibly millions) of people they are trying to sell their book to. Remember, they’re the ones you need to impress as they are the ones who ultimately pay for the product. And, given the current rise in e-books, traditional publishing houses don’t hold nearly the monopoly on the avenue to the consumer that they used to. My guess is it’s probably pretty tough being an editor these days.
One of my interns, not the brightest nor the most talented writer I ever met, worked for a Hollywood agency last summer, plowing through countless scripts to pass on “the best” to the bosses upstairs. He told me how many of his fellow readers got fired without any reason, with new readers getting hired each week. He survived before he quit in disgust.
A student of my Film and TV scriptwriting class in Chicago got his air guitar handbook rejected by a large publisher, then found an agent who managed to sell the short manuscript to the same publisher who had rejected the piece earlier. The thin little paperback sold as a “throwaway” book, apparently with great success.
Both incidents seem to say more about our “throwaway” society than about the quality of book or film scripts. Of course, the question remains, what can new writers do to take those first hurdles — apart from “grabbing the reader” — without losing their soul?
So it’s true. Love is blind. That’s why so much crap gets published.
Yes, I’m a bitter, rejected suitor, er, writer, but maybe one reason Big Pub is heading into a big hole in the ground is due to the fact that readers don’t want to shell out for the same-old, same-old they keep shoveling out, no matter how prettily it’s packaged.
You do know, right, that the sterling advice given here — show don’t tell, get on with the story already, don’t use too many adjectives, dump excessive description and so on — would eliminate such writers as David Foster Wallace, Jose Saramago, John Updike, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joyce Carol Oates, William Vollmann and one or two others who had enjoyed a degree of success and recognition? I’m just saying.
What makes a book stand out? Voice. Voice. Voice. Images that stand out like a cockroach on an ice cream cone. Sentences that arrest your attention. Energy that readers draw on and motivate them to read the next word.
Simple to say, damned hard to achieve.
In todays world, Dickons, Bronte, Eyre, Elliot etc. most likely would never have seen the light of day. What a shame that would have been.
I think some of the commenters on this thread seem bitter, which is a real shame. Here’s where most submissions fail:
1) The narrative structure doesn’t work because it wasn’t thought through properly.
2) The book is derivative, and / or is based on a current fad / trend.
3) The tone and flow of the writing is weak, or lacks realism.
4) The characters aren’t compelling enough.
5) The author hasn’t done their research, and has either a) sent their submission to someone who doesn’t represent their type of manuscript, or b) the publishing imprint is over-saturated with that type of book. And there’s nothing new or compelling about the ideas in the book anyway.
Those are the reasons why (if you’ve sent an SASE) you will receive a polite rejection letter. A lot of people on this thread are naming writers who they don’t think could be published in today’s market. Well, it’s simply not true. All the books named have their own style, and break some of the rules in the post above, but they all have one thing in common: those books have compelling characters, and a strong narrative structure. Dickens, Bronte, Eyre, Elliot, etc – they absolutely would be published in today’s market.
There might be books out there you don’t like, but I’m going to point out that even Twilight had a particular audience (so it was marketable), and at the time, it was different to what was popular in the YA market (there was a gap in the market for paranormal romance, but this is no longer the case). Most importantly of all, it had a clear three-act structure for each book. 9 times out of 10, rejected books don’t have a solid narrative structure. They’re a mess. Don’t feel bitter – revise! Literary agents and publishers aren’t mean people, hoping your manuscript will fail. We want you to succeed and we want to feel excited about what we read.
Don’t chase fads or trends. If there’s a popular book out about skydiving penguins, don’t write a similar novel, because even if you find an agent, it will be 2-3 years before your book is published, meaning that the general public is tired of novels about skydiving penguins and will no longer want to read your book. Most authors don’t seem to realise this and hound literary agents with books about vampires, for example.
Also, writing literary fiction and writing genre fiction are two different things, and have vastly different expectations attached to them. I don’t think the article explained that well. Research your genre and category. Outline. Revise. Edit. Research queries. This is the process that works for most people who do in fact get published. Writing a book just isn’t good enough, unless you’re Charles Dickens. And you probably aren’t, no offense.