Why the Agent Passed on Your Manuscript

Are you tired of getting the blanket rejection form? Agents don’t have time to give everyone they pass on personalized feedback on how to turn that rejection into a “yes” for next time. Sometimes they don’t even know how. All they know is that it’s not working now, and they must move on. This can be frustrating though, and leave writers wondering how to proceed. From personal experience and interaction with agents and editors myself, I decided to compile a list which may give writers a bit of insight. Below are reasons you may not have made the cut, or are still stuck in the slush pile after months of waiting for a response.

Query Package Isn’t Impressive

A query letter typically gives the agent the following information:

  • Genre
  • Length of your work
  • Comps
  • A good hook (what makes your book interesting?)
  • A summary of the plot

If you’re not providing the above in your query letter, you’re already forcing the agent to do more work than necessary. Now, they’ll likely have to read whatever it is that you’ve written in your query to pick out the relevant pieces. This is not something you want to do. Agents need to be efficient in their process to sift through the hundreds of queries which come through their inbox weekly (sometimes daily), and writers who don’t format their query letters in the standard format–sometimes even listed on an agency’s website–are basically stating they don’t care about an agent’s time and would rather do things their own way. Not a good start.

If for some reason you are sending our queries to every agent under the sun, the general information above will help individual agents determine whether or not your book is a good fit for them in just the first sentence. For instance, if you write fantasy, and that’s not something they’re interested in, they’ll be able to tell right away. Perhaps you think your story is so good, they won’t be able to pass it up once they read about the plot, so you are planning on hiding this info. Again, not a great idea. Be straightforward. Besides, agents are smart. They will know if you’re describing a fantasy plot without you outright stating it. Also, if you state you are pitching a book for middle grade but it’s 180,000 words, they can also pass immediately, because this is way too long for the targeted audience (and any audience, actually).

Now, I’ve stated this is the information that’s expected, and it sounds relatively easy, but where it gets tricky is how to write out your book summary in only one paragraph. That’s right. A query letter should only be three paragraphs. The first should contain what I described above, the second should delve into the premise of your book and why it’s interesting, and the third should list any writing credentials you have (author bio). The easiest way to describe your premise is to answer the following questions:

  1. What does the main character want?
  2. What obstacle is preventing the main character from obtaining what they want?
  3. What are they going to do about it?

If you cannot answer the questions above, this is not only a problem for your query letter but also for your book. It could signal that your plot is not evolved enough yet.

Comps (or comparables) are also a difficult piece of the puzzle. They are often other books, or movies/TV shows, which are similar to your story or could be used as comparison when trying to show the agent who may be interested in your book. This is important, because nowadays, publishers are asking editors to provide comps for books they pitch, which means publishers are asking agents to do the same. And well, now it’s trickling down to authors to do their homework and be able to tell agents what they believe is already out there (preferably doing well) which could be positioned next to the pitched work. The only caveat is to try not to think of yourself as the next Dan Brown or Gillian Flynn, even if you feel some of the elements in your story ring true of their writing style.

Next in the query package is typically a synopsis. A synopsis is a summary of your book. Think of when you wrote book reports in school. You spoke about the highlights of the book, the main characters, and the resolution. Most authors consider this a difficult task, because condensing 75,000 words into 500 can be difficult, but if you’re in tune with the essence of your plot and understand the structure of your book clearly, it should be a simple feat. However, authors tend to get caught up in either a) not wanting to reveal spoilers or b) writing too much and not being able to make it as compact as it should be.

Therefore, it’s paramount to pay close attention to the items in a query package, because it’s your first opportunity to make an impression with the agent about not only your story but yourself. Your writing skills; ability to follow instructions; and knowledge of the market/industry come through when you present these materials. A weak query could make an agent turn to the next person before they even get a chance to request your first pages if you don’t do it right. They will make assumptions (i.e. plot isn’t well written, premise isn’t interesting enough, author doesn’t understand his market, etc.) if you don’t put your best foot forward.

Voice Isn’t Right

The vaguest rejection an author can get from an agent is “the voice isn’t working for me here.” I’ve had it before, and while it was a bit heartbreaking, I totally understood what she meant. I just didn’t know how to fix it. So did I sit in a corner and cry and say, “Well, she doesn’t know. I’ll just send it over to someone else and they’ll probably understand my character better?” No, I jumped online (Manuscript Academy) and watched videos pertaining to voice in writing, and read one book in a weekend on the craft of writing beginnings and the other on the craft of writing in general. One of my beta readers recommended a different one about the first fifteen pages, and a critique partner gave me another recommendation. I read them all. This is not an exaggeration or dramatic. It’s dedication to what I love, and it helped. I honestly knew something was off about my beginning, because while I loved the premise of my story, I wasn’t excited writing it, and if it was a book I had picked up on the shelves randomly, I wouldn’t have been thrilled with the first page. The agent who said she couldn’t connect with the character’s voice was keen on the fact that the writer behind the voice wasn’t passionate about what she was writing, and the books I picked up showed me how to bring life to my character so others could connect with her. Then, I received eight requests for fulls.

I know voice is a tricky thing to describe, but it essentially is everything that comes through in your style of writing from your sentence structure to the way emotion is evoked, word choice and more. My word choice was lacking often. I couldn’t get the imagery quite right, and it frustrated me, but once I began to feel more confident and inspired, I overcame this hurdle, and the voice in my writing got better. Even now with the recent revision my agent recommended, she says she can see more depth in the voice and it’s more engaging. I’m so happy to hear this, and it shows this is an area where you can keep improving to find your natural voice and your character’s voice!

Writing Isn’t Strong

Maybe the agent asked for a partial, and you feel extra devastated because you thought there was a chance and after reading the first chapter or fifty pages, the agent returned with an email stating they didn’t feel it was a good fit at the time and wish you the best of luck in your future work. Bummer, right? So close! Well, it’s not a bad thing. It means your story is good, but you may have some work to do. Perhaps your query promised something that just wasn’t delivered in those first few pages, or the pacing of your story is off. Sometimes you have a vision in your head, but it is challenging to execute if you haven’t had beta readers or professional editors help you revise. I revised my first pages over 10 times before landing an agent, and even now, it will be on its 20th revision or so before an editor at a publishing house ever sees it! There is a lot you may never notice, because you’re either not looking for it, or it’s easy to miss when the story is still in your head, so revisions are important. At the multiple conferences I’ve attended, agents say the worst mistake they see writers make is submitting their work to them too early. What does this mean? It means if you receive a request for a partial (or even full) of your manuscript, don’t feel pressured to send immediately. Take the time to read it over once more, or even ten times more, and even send it to someone else, make necessary revisions, polish, REPEAT, and then send to the agent. An agent deserves your best work, or they’ll send it right back, but often they won’t have time to tell you what’s not working, so you’ll be left guessing. The more you revise, the less likely it will be that your writing is the culprit.

Story Doesn’t Fit Their MSWL

Agents and editors tend to have a Manuscript Wish List (MSWL), which is where they post what they would like to see in a future project. It’s a godsend for writers, and agents alike, because people can see what others are interested in and how to pitched to them. While it’s only a wishlist, it carries a lot of weight and accurately describes an individual’s taste by also stating what they are not interested in as well. For instance, if someone states they would love to see more books with Gossip Girl themes but do not want to read about ones with marriage drama or anything with erotica, an author (or agent) who has a work which focuses on either may say to themselves, “Let’s not pitch to that agent, because they’re not going to be interested. We will go to X, Y or Z instead and see what they think, because they’ve mentioned they love BA Paris–who is known for writing about marriage drama.” See? It’s a beautiful tool that can save lots of time if used properly.

I recommend it for anyone in the publishing industry, whether you’re a writer, agent or editor!

Premise Isn’t High-Concept

High-concept is another term which is not easy to describe. When I think of high-concept books or movies, I imagine layered plots with complex characters in a playground with a universal theme. What does this mean? It means you got all the perks and surprising thrills of things you didn’t see coming, but the emotions are there as well; you care about the people involved and what is going on, because you can relate. Yet, it’s a fresh concept. It’s something that hasn’t been done before, but simple enough that you probably could have thought of it yourself if you had taken something ordinary and given it an amazing twist.

Some agents and editors have a full list and can’t afford to take every story that talks about the same thing over and over. They want to make money on high-concept premises which will wow readers and turn them into lifelong fans of that author. It means you need to have a marketable imagination but also a promising level of writing skill to attract a wide audience and therefore sell at a national and international level–but be able to convince agents and editors of that before they take the chance themselves. It’s quite a feat, but you can do it if you try. There are so many stories to be told, and many derive from our own experiences as humans, so don’t be afraid to take the leap and have faith in yourself. Just think to yourself, how many people would want to read about this and engage on multiple levels?

Remember, these are common reasons for being rejected but not the ONLY ones. Agents are people, with their own preferences and personalities. We can’t possibly predict every single reason why they choose to pass on a particular project. The only thing we know for sure is that when someone decides to not work with you, the best thing you can do is pick yourself up and try again (cue Aaliyah lyrics), instead of taking it personally. The perfect agent is waiting for you out there somewhere, and the more you do to improve your work, the more prepared you’ll be for when your query letter lands on someone else’s desk next time!

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