When agents and editors talk about what they look for in a manuscript, the thing I seem to hear them say most often is voice. I’m not here to tell you voice isn’t important; it definitely is. But for me, it’s a little nebulous. Does this sound like it fits in the genre? Or more subjectively, is this a voice I want to spend a lot of time with?
But as I dive back into my query inbox (I’m open again! Query me!), I’ve realized that the reason I reject is often not voice—it’s plot.
There are three categories of plot problems:
1. Not Enough Plot
My most common complaint in this area is that there just isn’t enough plot, or more simply, it feels like nothing’s happening in the story. I’ll be honest with you: I like plot-driven fiction, even in books that are upmarket or literary. (And another truth bomb: I think they sell better.)
When I reject a book on plot-based grounds, I’ll often hear, “Oh, I know…it’s meant to be a character study.” But in my opinion, even in books that are more character-driven, the plot should be significant. One of the best ways to develop character is to show how they react and take action in response to the events around them. In other words, throw some plot at them, and let the reader divine their characters from that.
2. Too Much Plot
Sometimes, however, I reject because the plot is too convoluted. I see this most often in thrillers but occasionally in romance as well. There’s one twist too many, or the events are too far fetched. It’s a delicate balance between keeping the reader guessing and making her think that your book is ridiculous. What happened in the last five minutes of the Oscars last night, for instance, would probably seem insane in a book. Sometimes life is too implausible for fiction.
3. Non-Arcing Plot
The final issue I see is a plot that doesn’t quite follow the good ol’ grade school plot diagram. Things are happening, and they’re basically the things that should be happening, but the action isn’t rising to a definable climax, the major turning point. This is fixable, and I’ve signed books in which this was the only major problem. But if you can sort it out before you send it to me, all the better.
So yes, I’m the Goldilocks of plot. But let’s face it: agents are the Goldilocks of everything. We’re all looking for the books that are just right for us. I hope this helps you, though, as you look at your manuscripts for the billionth time. Good luck!