We all know that agents are very subjective in what they thinks make a good manuscript; they all agree on the same criteria (like strong prose, well-developed characters, etc) but to try and pick apart what actually meets those criteria will be different for literally every agent. It’s just the way we are as humans and readers. Things speak to us, or they don’t speak to us.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of humanizing in agents, which, hey, is great. I think they tend to be misunderstood and it can be hard for us writers to not feel their rejections or comments personally. So agents seem to have been trying harder to explain how they go about rejecting a manuscript. What has surprised me is how many agents say they will turn down a manuscript if it doesn’t strike them, even if they thought it was very good and/or sellable. They also agree that they are looking for something excellent that “shines” and “stands out,” and again, this is immensely subjective.
The message isn’t too horrible. It seems to me that agents are simply looking for an author they can rally behind, with a novel that they are passionate about themselves. I think (?) it was Nathan Bransford who recently said he has to be seriously passionate about a novel so that he’ll won’t loose interest once it’s been on submissions for a year and still hasn’t sold.
These people, these agents, want to be crazy about us and our work and find someone to dedicate themselves to. How cool is that? My conclusion has been that no matter how kind, sympathetic, or appreciative an agent is, they aren’t going to overlook the small stuff (because they want to support you death and all that.)
But I have also noticed a very, very, very interesting pattern. Agents will overlook the small stuff if they like your voice. I was reading something one day—can’t remember what, wish I could—and someone asked agents what makes them reject partials. The agents all agreed that if the partial lacked voice, they wouldn’t be accepting it. In fact, they went on to say that they’re actually looking for the voice. If it’s there and other elements are not then they’ll want to take a second look.
Forgive all my italics, but do you see the common thread here? THE VOICE IS SINGLE MAIN CLINCHER.
In Nathan Bransford’s last blog contest on first paragraphs, he did a thorough job of explaining how he picked the winners. (IMHO, I think he was a little disgruntled by how everyone complained the winners sucked in his previous contest.) I’m going to quote part of what he said because it was a really big brain-jolt to me. Pay attention to the words in bold—he did that in his original post.
“I think I read these first paragraphs differently as an agent than a lot of readers do. Lots of people look at the paragraphs and think, "Is this a book I want to read? Am I hooked? Would I buy this?" When I'm reading a paragraph (or a partial), I'm looking for execution more than I'm looking for whether there's a catchy plot introduced right off the bat. If the writing isn't there it doesn't matter how much I like the concept.
…Essentially, I think the first paragraph has three important functions: it establishes the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.”
I’m not going to sit here and claim that a good voice will sell you’re novel. But to me, this whole concept is crazy interesting. Never before in my life have I seen anyone set aside a submissions issues because of it’s other potentials. Rarely they’ll do that with a great hook, but that only seems to get you into the full submission stage, not the offer of representation stage. If a novel doesn’t really shine, they’re not going to accept it.
Unless it has voice.
The more I think about this, the more it makes. sense I have seen some weak novels enter the marketplace. You know the ones—they had potential, but the plot is flat or weird or whatever, the characters childish, yadda yadda. But when I think back now, they all had pretty unique, strong, original voices. Which tells me that a voice hooks people. A good plot hooks people, yeah, but voice has some kind of special quality all it’s own.
And the same goes for my own writing…there are novels I have loved, tried to start, and simply kept percolating for years because I can’t let them go, but I can’t write them until I get things right. It’s the voice that haunts me with those stories. Every time I open the file and begin reading, it's the voice that leaps out at me, that makes me know I can't throw this story away.
However, I'm not completely convinced that voice makes a novel. If I was an agent, I think my clincher would be a good premise. I am a complete and total sucker for good premises. Nor do I think novels with a rather underlying voice are going to fail. I write a lot of those novels.
I just think it’s interesting that agents would make their only exception for voice.
What do you think?