Top Turn-Offs…Or, How to Make Agents Drop Your Manuscript Like a New Year’s Resolution in February

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Earlier this month, I wrote in the NLA newsletter about ways to hook agents in your opening pages and keep them reading.  But what about the converse? It can be just as useful to know the things that sour an agent’s interest. So, I dug into our submissions archive to look for five of the most common reasons we passed:

  • Generic Voice. The writing is perfectly fine but the voice sounds gratingly familiar—as in, “didn’t I just read this in five Hunger Games wannabes last week?” This problem is by far the most common in first person novels and it is closely linked to character development. If your character is flat or sounds too much like that of another writer, it’s time to give him a personality lift.
  • Backstory Overload. Have you ever forced yourself to keep reading a boring novel because the author was well-known and it “should” be up your alley? Where it took a gallon of coffee to keep from nodding off in chapter three? Often, it’s because the  author tried to get away with too much backstory in the opening pages, causing the main story to stall. Trouble is, if you’re a debut author with this problem, agents will rarely make it to the part where the story finally takes off. Read this article from Writers Digest for some helpful techniques for getting backstory right.
  • Pacing Problems. This complaint came up a lot in our slush pile notes. The concept was fabulous, the characters great, but the pace was “off.” Sometimes it’s a sagging middle, a beginning that never took off, or a feeling of low tension throughout. Ask your critique group to watch for these things and mark the spots where they feel their attention wandering.
  • Seen It Before (7 Times This Week!). This is the problem with trying to pitch a story that fits the current trends. By the time a concept or genre hits its peak in the market, agents will have seen a hundred hopeful spin-offs. Yours will have to be flawless—and contain a lot of fresh elements—in order to compete. That certainly does happen, but it’s rare.
  • Great Concept, Lackluster Writing. This is the most disappointing one for agents. They see an amazing concept in the query and are dying to see it work—then the writing falls flat. If they see enough potential, an agent may send encouraging comments or an editorial letter with an offer to read a revision. Take these seriously but don’t rush—a thorough revision can’t be done overnight and most agents will expect you to take several weeks or months.

If you see any of these problems in your own writing, don’t be disheartened. Taking the time to address them will dramatically increase your chances of landing an agent. Best wishes!

2 responses »

  1. Very interesting! Actually, this sounds close to a list of reasons I choose to not finish books I’ve picked up to read, particularly the last point. I’ve chosen not to continue reading two books in the past month that I was so looking forward to, but I couldn’t connect with the writing. Then again, they’re both very popular books, so a lot of that might be personal taste.

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