What an Agent Looks for in a Manuscript
How I Evaluate Fiction Submissions
James R. Cypher
The Cypher Agency
Today, because of widespread corporate downsizing within the publishing business, literary agents become "first readers" by default. Accordingly, they make an initial, often hurried, judgment about whether they conceivably could find a nice, warm home for a writer's novel.
Admittedly, judging fiction is a highly subjective undertaking, but here are a few criteria(*) I used when I decided whether to accept or reject a writer's work:
(1) Overall. I'm most impressed by something I haven't seen before: a new idea, a new voice, the electricity one feels at encountering something unique, the totally unexpected. But, alas, I rarely encounter a manuscript that overwhelms me with paroxysms of joyous discovery.
(2) Voice. I ask several questions as I try to put myself in the position of a prospective reader. Do I want to spend several hours with this writer? Do I trust him or her? Does the writer render familiar scenes in ways that are new, or unfamiliar ones in ways that make me see them clearly? Does the writer reveal enough of himself through his characters to make me enjoy his company?
(3) Pace. After I read one page, do I want to read the next? If the writer has written crime fiction, a thriller or a horror or suspense novel, is it a genuine "page turner"? If not, the novel is not going to compete well against the thousands of other submissions acquisitions editors receive each year.
(4) Characterization. Do I like the characters? Are they three-dimensional, or are they mere cardboard cutouts? Do I care about their fates? If characters come alive, what they do becomes the story.
(5) Plot. Plot evolves from characters in conflict. The most interesting stories involve characters who want something badly. The more urgent their need, the greater the reader's interest.
(6) Style. No two writers are likely to write the same scene in exactly the same way. But I'm most impressed when I feel a writer has succeeded in creating the right word, the right phrase, the right sentence, the right paragraph, the right scene, the right chapter and the right story (whatever "right" is).
(7) Particularity and verisimilitude. If the writer gets his details right, accuracy pales before invention if the invention is convincing. If the writer convinces me something is true, I don't really care if it's actually true. Detail is the lifeblood of fiction -- the detail that differentiates one character from another, one act from another, one place from others like it. One of the most important aspects of successful creative writing is to examine each word for its precise meaning and the likely effect of every group of words on the emotions of the reader.
(8) Dialogue. Poorly written dialogue is among the chief reasons agents and editors reject manuscripts. If the dialogue doesn't work, the manuscript gets bounced. Contrary to popular view, dialogue is not a recording of actual speech; rather, it is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges between characters that build in tempo or content toward climaxes.
(9) Showing versus telling . Another reason agents and editors are quick to reject submissions is that the writer, consciously or not, has reported a story rather than showing it. Showing means having characters do things that excite readers' interest, making those scenes visual, letting readers experience what happens firsthand.
(10) Mastery of English grammar, usage and punctuation. In the "good old days," publishers invested lots of money in line editing to improve the quality of a writer's work. Today, a manuscript has to be nearly perfect at the time of its submission to pass muster with acquisitions editors. If a manuscript contains many "cosmetic flaws," the editor will reject it out of hand. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the writer to ensure that his submission does not contain spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, poorly chosen words, an abundance of adjectives and adverbs, overuse of passive voice constructions, etc.
(11) Marketplace requirements. The first consideration that goes into an editorial decision about whether to acquire a writer's work is a marketing one: whether the novel will sell a sufficient number of copies to make back its costs, including the advance to the writer, and turn a profit.
(12) Length. Unless a writer is of the stature of a James Michener, a Stephen King or a Norman Mailer, a 150,000- or 200,000-word manuscript is not going to pass muster in this era of ever-increasing paper costs. Fiction editors now prefer novels in the range of 70,000 to 80,000 words, but, with rare exceptions, not exceeding 100,000 words.