Agent perspective: What’s wrong with your manuscript

googleimages2Pitching your book to no avail?

Are agents not being forthcoming with advice?

Getting ready to submit in the new year?

The definitive guide to what’s wrong with most manuscripts:

1. All internal conflict, no external conflict. Does more happen in the character’s head than in the plot? This is going to be a problem whether it’s literary or commercial fiction. Make sure enough things happen.

2. Pace. The most important thing to get an agent’s attention is to keep us turning the pages and stop us from doing other things. The moment things lag, you’ve lost us.

3. Voice. This one’s more subjective, but the way to check if your book has voice is whether we can tell the difference between whose head we’re in or who is speaking at any given time. Everything about your writing style needs personality. What makes your book special? Your voice. It’s how we separate all the books out there.

4. Dialogue. This goes with my point above. I should be able to tell who is speaking–a character, not you the author. For me, this separates the beginners from the advanced writers.

5. Length. Does your book follow word count guidelines? If not, it’s an easy pass.

6. Structure. Getting experimental? Are chapters vastly different lengths? Jumping drastically from POV? If we can’t follow your structure, you’ve lost us.

7. Characters. Some people feel differently about the ‘likeability’ aspect of characters. Personally, I enjoy ‘liking’ characters, but more importantly: Do they grow? Do they evolve? Do we care about their stakes and what happens to them? If not, I’m not on board.

This comes from reading many, many slush pile manuscripts that I often like but don’t love.

Use this as a checklist.

Good luck!

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

32 thoughts on “Agent perspective: What’s wrong with your manuscript

  1. I struggle with creating distinct voices for different characters. Have any sage advice, writers’ best kept secrets, or nifty tips that you can pass along?


    1. The better you know your characters, the more distinctive their voices will be. Their voices will be theirs, not yours. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Write monologues in the voice of your various characters. Write dialogues between characters. These probably won’t make it into the final book, but they’ll teach you a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How often is there nothing wrong with a manuscript (or it is right enough that an agent is willing to work with it) but it rejected because the premise doesn’t personally appeal to the agent or the agent decides that it isn’t marketable? Thanks!


    1. Eric, I was just thinking about this the other day. If I had to read queries I was wondering if I would reject many because I personally am not interested in the storyline. I could care less about teenage vampires zombies! Boom, gone in the trash. So, I too would like to get into the head of why they continue reading if they are not personally interested in the subject. Are there guidelines they look for in their particular agency? Certain markers? Are they given specific subject to pursue when they read the queries? The worse thing would be is to read a query and reject it and know that another agency picked it up and made millions on it. It happens all the time…but do you want to be the agent that tells her boss…”Oh, I read that query and rejected it!”


      1. Deeva, agents let those things roll off their backs. Every time something sells, at least one agent has passed on it. An agent’s job is to do best by their author, so if we don’t see the appeal you’re better off with someone who does. The best agent is the one that has the connections and is THE MOST excited about your project and you.


    2. Eric, I only request about 3% of all queries. And sign less than 1%. Those 2% fall into the liked it but didn’t love it, can’t see the market, well-written but don’t see the appeal for me categories.


  3. These guidelines are worth paying attention to even if you’re not going the traditional route. I’ve read several novels recently — self-published, indy-published, and even in one case commercially published — that read like promising first drafts. Attention to some or all of these guidelines would have helped all of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Leona's Blog of Shadows and commented:
    Except for the length, all of it is true for indie publishing too. Throwing a badly written manuscript at a few slush pile readers is a lot less embarrassing than throwing it in front of thousands of readers, imho. A literary agent sends a rejection letter in private, but the readers who actually purchase the self published books give nasty one star reviews trashing it in public view.
    Yes, readers can forgive some spelling and grammar mistakes, but they are not likely to forgive the badly written and weak characters, confusing dialogs and boring pages.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello again, Carly ~ please forgive the irregular request, but I’m wondering if you might have a chance to look at the opening paragraphs of the short story on my blog, “Village of the Smokey Hills”? Just wondering if you’d give the opening a thumbs up or thumbs down, but I understand if time or boundaries don’t allow for you to look at it. I do have another novel that I’m working on, and will send you a query. Thanks for your awesome blog!


  6. Thanks for thislist… I was curious about word count guidelines… my current novel is kind of an epic at 190 000 words in total. But it is a multi character and viewpoint work spanning a calendar year. Is there not a point where length is a function of the subject?


    1. My argument is that you should go to the bookstore and look at how many novels are 190k; how many books are 190k in your genre? If you’re straying too far from your genre’s norms, then it’s a problem.


  7. Reblogged this on Glamour Philosophy and commented:
    All of us can use these tips. I know I can!; and will tackle my writing this year like I haven’t in literally a decade! My life has changed soo much and I finally am free to do what I love. Writing and going back to school for computers! Two different worlds, but will be harmonious to Me!! Wish me luck!


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