In my experience as a literary agency intern I was instructed early on to look for certain key elements that would make a manuscript more likely to appeal to a broad audience. Distinctive characters and "high-concept literature" (that is, stories predicated on unique premises) were both important, but by far the most crucial factor in determining a book's viability was its narrative urgency. Did the story move?
An author can craft wonderful personalities and lace an elaborate fictional world with astounding imagery, but if the plot isn't going anywhere then the manuscript probably isn't either. Remember: being a good writer is not the same thing, and is often not as important, as being a good storyteller. Contemplative literature has a place, but agencies aiming to sell to a general audience will seek out plot-driven projects. The cold, hard fact is that a book with great narrative urgency can often be a success even without great character development or even particularly good writing.
That might seem unfair, but it's the way the game is played.
Over the summer I was regularly tasked with writing what are called reader's reports; these essentially constitute one-page briefs in which a manuscript's main plot points are summarized and its commercial potential appraised. Those of you with prior experience submitting to agencies may be familiar with these documents, as agents will sometimes share them with authors in a bid to help improve the authors' projects.
I cannot, for reasons of confidentiality, share any of the reports I actually wrote during my time in New York, but I wanted to give you a sense of the way in which we critique unpublished manuscripts. In that vein, I've taken an already published book, Curtis Sittendfeld's Prep (Random House, 2005) and reviewed it as I would a manuscript still under consideration.
This particular book was a New York Times bestseller and debuted to mostly positive reviews, but I would personally have declined to represent it. I hope this sample reader's report will prove helpful in shedding some light on how literary agencies consider submissions.
To: Non-Existent Literary Agent
From: Ethan Vaughan
Re: Prep reader’s report
Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 2005) is the story of Lee Fiora, a 14-year-old Indiana girl who arrives on a scholarship at prestigious Ault boarding school in Massachusetts and immediately feels out of place with her wealthy and well connected peers. Set over four years of high school, the manuscript’s central focus is Lee’s struggle with searing insecurity and self-doubt as she chooses roommates, navigates (or altogether avoids) cliques, loses her virginity, and experiences other teenage milestones.
Several positive qualities stand out in this manuscript. The book’s very first sentence, for instance, provides an inviting hook: “I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mix-up.”
This immediate jump into the action leaves the reader intrigued and wanting to know more.
Beyond the effective opening, two elements of the manuscript emerge as singular: the unfailingly interesting characters who populate Lee’s world and the pitch-perfect accuracy with which the author depicts roiling adolescent anxiety. Lee’s desire to speak ill of others as a way of bonding, her brief but frantic fears that she might be a lesbian, her simultaneous longing for and fear of sex, and the feverish nature of her lonely self-scrutiny all constitute a masterful portrayal on the part of Sittendfeld that is almost unnerving in its truth.
At two separate points in the novel, when Lee expresses how intimidated she is by the maturity of her sexually active peers and when she justifies refusing invitations to social events on the grounds that she isn’t really wanted, I felt as if I could have been reading about my 9th-grade self.
Even Sittendfeld’s dialogue is disarmingly real to life.
Lee’s exchange with her roommates on page 102, in which they randomly yell the phrase “cheese pie” and start giggling at how ridiculous they are, had me laughing out loud and recalling similar incidents from my own adolescence. This authenticity is the manuscript’s shining characteristic and will surely resonate with teenagers.
There are also some elements that could use improvement.
Particularly if the manuscript is aimed at young adult readers, as the subject matter would seem to indicate, the story would benefit from an increased focus on forward momentum. While Lee’s introspection is a vital part of the book, it is well established early on and does not need to be regularly reiterated. Lee’s intense and detailed bouts of overthinking (at one point she spends nearly an entire page debating the precise moment she should begin laughing at a prospective boyfriend’s joke) contribute to the tone of the manuscript without aiding its narrative urgency. Such exhaustive examinations of Lee’s inner psyche in the absence of major plot movement may throw younger readers off and make it harder for them to stay with the story.
Reader interest would be better maintained and narrative urgency best served if Prep had a clearer conflict. Spanning four years and detailing mostly the mundane tribulations of high school, the manuscript’s primary struggle is Lee’s amorphous battle with her own insecurity.
While certainly realistic, this does not lend itself to a fast-paced narrative. Furthermore, Lee does not at any point overcome her crippling self-consciousness, which some readers could find a let-down after sticking it out with her for more than 400 pages.
A clash with an imposing antagonist over whom Lee somehow triumphed would help readers become more invested in the story. Showing Lee in a somewhat more positive light would also work to accomplish this goal; Lee’s honesty about her faults is refreshing, but at times, such as when she casually ponders whether a friend’s suicide attempt will elevate the girl’s social standing, she comes off as downright unlikeable. Lee’s insecurity and self-absorption remain essentially unchanged from the start of her freshman year to her graduation, a fact that indicates surprisingly little development on her part. It’s as if she’s learned nothing from her time at Ault.
A clear conflict with a decisive end, a faster plot, and more character development for the protagonist would improve Prep and bring attention to the manuscript’s existing positive qualities.