What I Learned From an Agent’s Rejection

As a querying author, the majority of responses from agents are form rejections. “Thank you for sharing your manuscript. Unfortunately, at this time, this isn’t the right project for me. I hope you find a home for your work.”

If you are in the querying trenches, you know this process. An author friend of mine, who did score an agent multiple books ago, said it felt like someone calling his baby ugly—over and over again.

And I can’t negate this. I’ve looked back on my four kids’ baby pictures. Not cute. At the time—to me—they were the cutest babies ever born. But a few months and pounds later, after the wrinkles were smoothed, they were much cuter.

But rejection is part of the process. And an integral part. Rejection means our story wasn’t the right fit for an agent for whatever reason. Often, it’s the plot. And often, it’s our execution of the plot. But few rejections offer how we can fix it.

Most of my rejections were the same. Form. No detail. Until one. A rejection that changed the course of my writing forever.

This agent didn’t send a form rejection. Instead, he pointed out areas where my writing needed improvement and went on to give me suggestions on how to strengthen it.

If you are a published author-hopeful whose manuscript keeps getting rejected, maybe these tips will help you through your next revision.

Exposition in Dialogue

Exposition in dialogue is when characters say things to each other for the reader’s benefit, but the characters should already know what they are talking about.

Here is an example from my manuscript, “Julie’s hardly hung out with us all summer.” Two characters are talking about their third best friend. Obviously, they both know the character Julie hasn’t hung out with them all summer.

Here is the revised dialogue, “I miss the three of us.” Here the character is sharing an internal emotion that the other character may not know. It shows emotion rather than telling a statement. It sounds more authentic.

His advice was to break apart each scene as if it were a movie. What can the reader see? What can’t they see because it’s happening in narration or dialogue?

As I pulled the manuscript apart, on a line level, I started to immediately see where dialogue wasn’t working. I also noticed other mistakes in dialogue I was making. Dialogue shouldn’t be lengthy grammatically correct sentences. (Unless that is the character’s personality). Rather say the dialogue out loud and cut any words you can so the dialogue still makes sense.

Stronger Consistent Themes

He also pointed out that the themes didn’t seem consistent throughout. That I should focus on what those were and make sure all of my character’s actions pointed back to them.

While I hadn’t really thought about themes while I was first writing, during my final revision I did. To me, my main character struggles to find the balance between independence and dependence. Her actions, her goals, her obstacles, they all push and pull her between those two. Eventually, she finds that balance, and therefore, the story arc is complete.

In your writing, have you identified the themes you hope to convey and structure your scenes to point to those themes? If not, look at each scene and ask yourself if it fits the themes you are trying to develop. Then revise or cut scenes that don’t. You’ll have a much stronger plot and if you are an overwrite like me, much less word count!

A Well-Rounded Antagonist

In my earlier manuscript, my villain was just plain old awful. Not a redeeming quality in him. Why in the heck my main character was ever drawn to him wasn’t obvious. It was more like she had no choice. And for a character to have agency, they must make decisions that get them into trouble and ultimately that get them out of it.

This meant me revising some scenes and even adding a few new ones to give her a reason to WANT to be with this eventually horrible person. And then to WANT to be away from him. And while it was more fun for me as a writer to just let him be pure evil, for a reader, it wasn’t landing.

In conclusion, I will forever be grateful to the agent that was so generous with his wisdom and time. And while my manuscript probably still needs work, I’m confident enough in myself now that I can take feedback and apply it. And hopefully, that means soon I’ll find a literary agent that is as excited about my manuscript as I am!

I hope this was helpful to you in your writing journey!

-Amy Nielsen

The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.

Zadie Smith

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