For many years, I received rejections from agents with some variation of this: "While I thought your writing was strong, I ultimately didn't connect with the story the way I'd hoped."
It was frustrating. I wanted something more specific. Was it something I was doing wrong? Was it entirely subjective and I just hadn't found the right agent? I felt like those words were code for something and I didn't have the key.
Well, this year I’m a YA mentor for Pitch Wars and I think I might have finally cracked the code...just a little!
For those of you who haven’t heard of Pitch Wars, it’s an online contest organized by the amazing Brenda Drake. Potential mentees submit their completed manuscripts to 4-6 mentors. Each mentor reads through their submissions and picks one mentee to work with for a two-month period. After polishing the query and manuscript until it shines, the agent round starts! It’s become a very popular contest because of the high success rate of manuscripts that hit the agent round and because of the great online writing community that surrounds the contest:)
I’ve been so excited to be a mentor and give back to a fellow writer, but I never knew how much I’d also learn from this experience. In total, I received 53 submissions, and reading through them, I discovered some things that I suspect are similar for agents. I also gained a better understanding of the rejections I'd received in the past. So I thought I’d share these thoughts here.
First, I wanted to say that with the exception of one or two entries, the writing at a line level in all manuscripts was of the quality and caliber needed for this contest. I saw very few issues like passive writing, telling versus showing, grammar, etc. So kudos to everyone who submitted. With two months of mentorship and revision, any of these stories would have been ready for the agent round.
But I needed a way to narrow down my choices from 53 submissions to two (it was supposed to be one, but Brenda, the fairy godmother, granted my wish and I was given a wild card submission as well!)
So in terms of process, I did skim the query, but initially, it was really about the pages. If I loved the pages, I didn’t care about the query because I knew I could work on it with the author. BUT, if I was on the fence about the pages, I’d return to the query. If there was nothing there to hook me, I was more likely to pass. So the quality of the query did factor into my decision for these submissions.
There were a few consistent things that made me less likely to request and the number one was not connecting with the MC. This happened for a few reasons:
The MC had no agency. Things were happening around the MC, but the MC was not actively driving them or responding to them. MCs with no agency are a little boring, plus they are difficult to get to know. It’s the way a person reacts to something (e.g., death of a loved one, becoming pregnant, mental illness) that tells the reader who they are and makes us sympathize with them.
Even from the first couple of chapters, the MC’s character arc was not evident. At the beginning of the story, your main character needs to have a flaw/ misbelief/internal conflict that will prevent them from achieving their goal. They will have to overcome this flawed view in order to ultimately achieve their goal and that’s where their character arcs stem from. If you haven’t checked out Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, I highly recommend that you do. If your character starts out as essentially happy and well-adjusted, they have no room to grow and change. We have no reason to root for them. Or if their internal conflict is not fully developed, there won’t be enough emotional tension on the pages.
The story starts with a boatload of people, like a party, first day of school, etc. I’m not saying that this can’t be done well, but if you are introducing ten+ characters in the first chapter, it’s challenging to give the MC the focus we need to get to know them. You have to be very clear about your character’s arc and how that will play into your character’s interaction with the party-goers, fellow students, etc.
The MC’s best friend or friends were awful people. I noticed a number of stories where the best friend was really mean to the MC or acted terribly, and the MC just seemed to accept it for no particular reason. I really struggled with these set-ups and what it says about the MC. Alternatively, there were the absolutely perfect best friends that were too super sweet and totally supportive. If the best friend is going to have a big role in the story, they also need a personality that will challenge the MC and forward the plot.
Something really tragic/emotional happened to the MC, but it had little emotional impact. So many submissions did start in the right place and had so much potential to generate an emotional response. But because the pages spent so much time explaining to the reader about this awful thing that was happening and not showing us how the character reacted and why, I had a hard time connecting.
Another thing I noticed was wasted real estate in the first few chapters. Reading 53 submissions in the space of a week, I realized that while I was definitely looking for stories I could fall in love with, I was also ‘looking’ for reasons to eliminate a story and help my decision-making. If I had to look for reasons to read more, I probably passed on the submission, and I suspect that agents go through similar processes.
This is why it’s important to start the story at the right point, to not include too much backstory, and to be disciplined in your writing. If you have dialogue between your MC and another character in your first chapter, it needs to be engaging and tell me something about your MC’s character. If they’re just talking to their best friend about class schedules or after school plans, you are wasting valuable real estate in those first pages. You may still be able to hook my attention (or an agent’s), but you have less chance to do it.
I also struggled in some cases with marketability. While it’s important to write the stories you feel passionate about, it’s also in an author’s best interest to understand the market you’re writing for. For instance, if your MC is under 16 years old, you’ll have a harder time finding a place for it in the current YA market, especially as a debut author. Kids want to read up. So most teenagers want to read about older teenagers. If your MC is under sixteen, you should consider aging them up or aging them down to middle grade. There were also a couple of submissions where the writing was beautiful, but it didn’t come across as a YA voice or where the submission had too much similarity to other best-selling YA books. I know agents will consider potential marketability as well.
Finally, I wanted to mention those submissions where I did request more, but ended up not reading all the way through the full. This was most often because of a lull in action/tension. In many cases, the first chapters were really promising, but then nothing really happened in the next few chapters. One of the main reasons for this can be the lack of a character arc for the MC. So even though the writing might be proficient, there’s no internal conflict to keep the reader engaged. In other cases, it was taking too long for the external conflict to get going. I also saw lost opportunities to add emotional depth to a story. The most common example was relationships with parents/guardians. I noticed a lot of stereotypical moms and dads versus stories where the parents had personalities that complimented the MC’s inner conflict. Another example was lack of romantic tension between the MC and their love interest.
All of these issues can be tackled through revision, and all manuscripts had potential as a Pitch Wars contender. Unfortunately, I could only pick two and knowing that I’d be working on these stories for two months, I wanted manuscripts that I loved and really connected with.
Hopefully, some of this feedback will help you with the revisions that will make your story shine! Even if you didn't submit and are just receiving rejections like the ones I received, hopefully one of these pointers will resonate with your story. I know that it’s reinforced the things I need to look out for in my own writing.
I also wanted to thank everyone that submitted to me. I felt honored to have the chance to read all of your submissions:)