On any given day, I do a ton of reading. There’s my for-fun book on my commute to and from work. The unpublished manuscripts I read in the office as part of my job as a literary assistant. My after-hours beta reading for friends. And, yeah, okay, the occasional after-hours work reading, too — assistant life is busy!
So I’ve read a lot of books, many published, many unpublished (for now!). And today, I figured it might help those of you in the query trenches — or those of you who someday want to be in the query trenches — to talk about the most common missteps I see in requested manuscripts when I’m working as a literary assistant.
There is a lot of advice out there that focuses on how to make your query and first chapter shine — I’ve written some of it! But you must have a polished manuscript, not just a polished query, if you want an agent or an editor to fall in love with your book. Because our time is precious. And if we hit too big of a snag while we’re reading your full manuscript, we will stop.
I want to help you make your manuscript unputdownable.
So, without further ado, here are the Top Five Reasons I Stop Reading a Full Manuscript:
- Character and stakes aren’t established quickly enough
I’ve grouped these two categories together for one primary reason: voice.
Ah yes, voice, that undefinable thing that all agents tell you you must have, that you can’t force, that’s the underlying lynchpin of your story. Well, voice is essential, and it’s the number one thing that makes me either read more of a submission or lose interest quickly. It’s a unique combination of character and stakes that hooks a reader into your story and makes them care. It can be funny or sad or frightening — as long as it’s compelling and consistent, it’s working.
As a literary assistant, I’m not looking for the perfect manuscript. An edit letter can fix sluggish pacing or confusing world-building — but it is very, very difficult to teach someone how to find a voice. So when I read a manuscript that doesn’t seem to understand why we, as a reader, should be invested in this particular cast of characters, or understand who those characters are, I put it down.
2. Tension, tension, tension
Often, I’ll request a manuscript because I see the talent and potential in the opening pages, and I’m hopeful that when the plot kicks in, it’ll be awesome.
Unfortunately, the most common reason I stop reading a manuscript is because the tension of the story doesn’t start to build.
What do I mean by building tension? Well, in the traditional narrative structure of a novel, there is a moment where the protagonist’s natural order of life is upended. Their world is turned upside down. Then they struggle, change, and grow.
But a lot of manuscripts take far too long to hit this turning point. Instead, they linger in the protagonist’s pre-transformed life, which can make the reader feel like they’re treading water. If you don’t plunge us into the deep end, we’re just going to get out of the pool.
3. The writing isn’t ready yet
Sometimes, a submission will land in my inbox with a fantastic premise and a strong pitch — enough to intrigue me and lead to a full request. But even the best ideas can’t overcome sentence-level writing that just doesn’t work yet.
When you query, it’s important to master all levels of your craft, from the bottom up. If a plot is the engine of your story, each individual paragraph is the paint and chrome — essential to making the whole thing look good. Taking the time to work on your sentence-level prose until it sparkles is an integral part of the writing process.
4. Too much/Too little Worldbuilding
Starting a manuscript and being immediately plunged into a sea of new terminology can be incredibly disarming. Being loaded down with intense science fiction or fantasy terms is part of my job (I’m lucky enough to work mostly with genre fiction, which I love), which means I often have a higher tolerance than most for intense, large-scale worldbuilding. Which means that when it confuses me, I know it’s too much.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are times when I start a manuscript and realize very quickly that I have no context for what’s going on — where the characters are, what sort of technology or weapons I should expect to see, how their magic works, etc.
So, I might stop reading a manuscript because either too much information is being indicated too quickly, or the author is keeping their cards too close to their chest. This is really two different extremes of the same skill — finding that balance is an essential part of making your manuscript shine.
5. Plot drives character
I put this one last, even though it’s arguably the most important, because most of what I’m talking about today are things I can notice in the first fifty pages of a manuscript.
But plot driving character is something that makes me put down a full manuscript I’m farther into. It’s the primary reason I might read an entire manuscript and still choose not to pass it onto my boss.
What do I mean by plot driving character? Well, when I read a story, I want to feel as if the plot would not have happened without this specific set of characters’ decisions. I want to see the way their choices impact the narrative and push the story along. I want to feel as if the character is in control of the plot.
But often, I find myself feeling as if the opposite is true. There are some telltale benchmarks for this — too many coincidences driving important story beats; things happening to main characters instead of main characters making things happen; characters often seeming to prevail or fail not because of their skill set, but because it’s what the story demands of them.
That’s not to say that you can’t rely on a coincidence every once in a while. But when there’s a consistent pattern of characters bending to the plot, instead of the plot bending to the characters, I’ll stop reading.
A final note: every agent is different, and no book is perfect. A plot device or world building choice that trips me up could make another agent fall in love, or vice versa.
But hopefully, these tips give you an idea of common pitfalls to avoid when polishing your manuscript for submission.