3 Problems with Plot

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!

6 Tips for Sending a Requested Manuscript

Eeeee a request! All that inbox refreshing has finally paid off: an agent wants to see your work. 

A manuscript request is the beginning of your relationship with an agent, and as with any first encounter, you want to ensure you’re making the best possible impression. I would never reject someone for not following the advice below, but it makes me happy when a writer does these things. And you definitely want an agent to be happy when she starts reading your book.

1. Make sure to send in the requested format. 

This may seem obvious, but I frequently have to ask writers to resend their pages because they sent the document in a different format than I requested. Every agent has her personal preferences—I always ask for a Word document because I read manuscripts on a Kindle. PDFs don’t format correctly; I’m unable to enlarge the text. And reading on my laptop hurts my head, even with just a twenty-page sample. 

If a writer sends in a different format, I simply email and ask them to resend as a Word doc. Not a catastrophe, but it does mean a slight delay. And attention to detail is hugely important in the publishing process; it can only help your chances to show from the start that you have that quality.

2. Send promptly!

Generally speaking, I hope to see a response to a request within about a day. Sometimes when I’m really excited about a project, I’m checking my query inbox eagerly, hoping it comes in so I can start reading immediately. If a writer takes too long to respond, I can’t help but wonder if the manuscript isn’t finished yet. If you need time for one last polish, I’m happy to read whenever it arrives—but it’s best to do that polish before you send out your queries.

Of course, life happens, and I highly encourage email breaks when you’re on vacation. Just let the agent know that you were out of town, and no points will be lost, I promise. Clear communication is necessary for a good agent-author relationship, and this starts with the query process.

3. Paste your query into the front of your manuscript.

When I go to my Kindle to read, I like to remind myself quickly of what the manuscript is about before I look at the pages. If you don’t put your query at the front of the manuscript, I have to look at my email to find your query. And since I’m often reading in places without Internet access, like the subway, I may skip your manuscript and jump to one for which I have context. I get to every manuscript eventually, but anything you can do to help the process along is beneficial.

4. Title your file with Title.Name.Date.Amount Included.

This is another tip that helps give me the context I need to start reading your work. I often get manuscripts titled “Request for Jennifer Johnson-Blalock,” which I know makes sense for your system but doesn’t help me figure out what I’m about to read. At the very least, your file name should include the title of your work. The author’s name (okay to use just the last name) is also useful. If you include the date you’re sending it and the amount (50 pages, full, partial, etc.), that will be a huge help in keeping me organized. And if the file name hasn’t gotten too long yet, and you want some bonus points, you might also include the name of the conference or contest, if applicable. 

So for example, if I were sending a manuscript out, it might say, HEART-POUNDING ROMANCE.Johnson-Blalock.8.15.16.RWA.50 pages. And with that, the agent has the key background information, right in the name of the document. 

5. Make sure your manuscript is clean and doesn’t include tracked changes.

Tracked changes is a wonderful tool for editing and a terrible barrier to reading. You’d be surprised how often I receive manuscripts that still have the changes from the last round of edits. It’s impossible to lose yourself in a work when you’re reading past a strike-through, so I have to ask the writer to resend, which delays my evaluation. Don’t rush to follow tip #2 only to send something that isn’t the final version.

6. Don’t change the subject line when you send. 

For many agents' email systems, when you change the subject line to say REQUESTED or the like, it puts the email in a new, separate conversation. This means I now have two emails to keep track of in my inbox, and if you started an entirely new email instead of replying, I have to search to find the initial email to review the query. 

Two caveats to this advice, though. First, obviously follow any stated guidelines or preferences of a particular agent. Based on the conversations I’ve had, many agents share my feelings on subject line changes, but there are always agents who have their own systems. Second, I do think it’s fine to change the subject line if you have an offer because it’s helpful to highlight that in the agent’s inbox. But make sure you’re just replying and then changing the subject, rather than opening a new email, so that the agent has the thread of communication to reference. 

And there you have it, my best pro tips for putting your dream agent in a blissful state of mind when she picks up your work. Do you have any questions about manuscript requests? Feel free to ask in the comments section! Or chime in with your own recommendations. 

Why I'm a Literary Agent

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved books more than anything else. Growing up, I constantly got in trouble for trying to read at the dinner table. I used to hide in the hall closet where we kept the sleeping bags—they made the perfect nest—avoiding my little brother and sister who wanted me to play outside and reading by flashlight. As you can probably guess, I didn’t have a lot of friends as a small child (most kids LIKE to play!), but I was happy to be besties instead with Laura, Anne, and Jo.

When I was young, like so many other readers, I wanted to be a writer. I was a very determined child, with more drive than knowledge. When I was about seven or eight (around the age of my classic watermelon dress photo featured on the About page), I proudly showed my mother a story I had written for Seventeen’s fiction contest. It had to be double spaced, so I had painstakingly put two spaces between every word. 

I know. She couldn’t contain her laughter either.

I changed my career plans as I grew older. In middle school, I wanted to be a geneticist. I firmly believed in high school that I was going to be the first woman president of the United States. (I couldn’t be happier now that it looks like that would be impossible.) I went to college planning to major in government and go to law school. 

Then I took a by-audition writing class in the fall of my sophomore year: Rhetoric 325M. Each week, we wrote essays that focused on different rhetorical strategies. Then we would gather in the library and edit every single classmate’s paper. We met at people’s apartments to workshop two essays each week. I fell in love with writing once more and editing for the first time and changed my major to English, thinking about one day working in book publishing.

Fast forward to the summer before my senior year of college, when I had made it to New York—but with an internship at a fashion magazine. Definitely not my dream job. Picture The Devil Wears Prada without the free clothes and trip to Paris. After reading about various careers in publishing, I decided I wanted to be a literary agent, and some article that I wish I still had a copy of told me that going to law school is a great plan for people who want to be agents. 

I wrote my admissions essay to law school declaring this intention, relating it back to an argument my Rhetoric 325M class had over a poetic, but rather convoluted, sentence one Wednesday night. My professor ended the debate by telling us that we would never agree because the world is made up of two people: poets and lawyers. I didn’t know which category I fit into at the time, and in my application, I declared that I was a hybrid. My essay stated firmly, “I want to be a literary agent. The poet can bury herself in manuscripts, and the lawyer can negotiate deals with the publishing houses. Both parts of me will be content.” 

A few months later, Harvard sent me an acceptance letter with a handwritten note on the bottom: “The path to becoming a literary agent starts here!” It ended up being a convoluted path that took about nine years to complete and led me into a few dark forests, but I suppose they were right…eventually. 

The funny thing though is that for as much as I got wrong as I found my way to being an agent, my initial instincts (however dramatically phrased) were one hundred percent correct. I love being an agent because it satisfies both sides of my brain and demands that I use every skill in my arsenal. I get to write a little and read a lot and edit and strategize and yep, negotiate contracts, too. This is the only job I’ve had in which I’m constantly challenged.

And I still love books more than anything else. Getting to talk to writers every day, to help bring books into the world that some other girl might one day read in the closet with a flashlight…

I won’t tell you this job is easy, but I simply can’t imagine a better one.