What DO agents see in your manuscript?

So, I have just been tweaking my first three chapters prior to embarking on another round of querying agents. Naturally, this involved doing all the usual stuff that gets done at this juncture: swapping adjectives, tightening up the text, removing adverbs, changing ‘that’ to ‘which’ and then ‘which’ back to ‘that’ again before eventually getting rid of the ‘that’ because it’s unnecessary. You know the drill.

Anyway, apart from making the changes that really need to happen, I found myself scrutinising the text perhaps a trifle more than is required at this point in the proceedings. For example, I changed the name of a starship from HMS Clevland simply because the word that follows HMS Cleveland  is ‘and’. And that didn’t really work.

Yes, yes, I know this may be finicky and a little over the top… but that’s exactly what got me thinking on the question posed in the title: What do agents see in a manuscript? More to the point, are all of these little changes really worth the effort? I mean, I’ve been rejected by about 30 agents so far (which is only to be expected) but will minuscule tweaks of my work really make a difference? I’m sure that many agents don’t even get past the query letter and synopsis before they reject a submission. Fair enough; they’re busy people with a slush pile the size of corruption allegations against FIFA. Of those that do actually read what we’ve sent them, is it really that important that the work is as impeccable as can be, including those teeny-weeny details such as an ‘and’ following Cleveland. Aren’t any books accepted by a publisher going to be given a whopping great dose of the red-pen treatment by an in-house editor anyway?

The answer to this is no doubt, yes. But then again, do all of the tiny adjustments we make between sending stuff off in queries actually have an impact. I believe they do. Granted, when an agent reads those proverbial “first three chapters”, they’re looking primarily at the marketability, the concept, the voice, etc. But I do think that the general finish and sheen is important. Even if an editor is going to have a go at your pride and joy later on on the process, it must still blow the agent away by how much it has been polished.

Or should it…?

Agents are astute readers. They can tell when a huge amount of work has gone into a draft, and this must have an impact on their overall view of you as an author.

Or does it…?

Oh, I don’t know. Anyone who does know, please get in touch.

In the meantime, I shall carry on querying with the very best that I can offer… only to subsequently refine that very best that I can offer when I go back, re-read it and realise this wasn’t in fact the best I can offer and start making more changes. Circle of life.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Sorry if you read this thinking that I was going to impart some wisdom as to what agents see in your manuscript. I wasn’t. The title wasn’t rhetorical and I really am seeking the answer to this question.


3 comments on “What DO agents see in your manuscript?

  1. Hmmm. I think what they are looking for (and what they’re rejecting us for) is most likely due to the bigger things: does this book grab me? Are the characters fascinating from the get go? Is there an audience for this? Etc.

    Those kinds of things are going to be door openers, but they’re also the most massively difficult things to pull off in existence (except for bathroom tiles stuck to render. Might as well demolish the God damned wall…)

    I’d say for every 30 agents, try another beta reader too. People are more likely to help you refine those big ticket things. An agent just doesn’t have the time 😦

    Best of luck, and if you want a beta reader I’m here mate!

    • gpeynon says:

      Ok. I’ll take you up on the beat reader offer, and hope I can do the same in return?

      I’m pretty sure you’re right about the bigger things, but I just wonder if that little trip over the text here and there can tip an agent the wrong way, just as you are getting them onside. Like I said, I think the majority of rejections come at the query letter point any way.

      So how about I send you those proverbial first three chapters and you can cast an eye over them? That would be great. Any thoughts on how I get them to you without either of us waving our email addresses about on WordPress?

      Oh, and give me stubborn bathroom tiles over plot mechanics any day 🙂

      • S’all good mate, my email address is drsylvesterfiction AT gmail DOT com. Flick them over and I will have a read! 🙂

        I know what you mean about the little things and worrying over them, but just remember that response you got before: the agent said they couldn’t fit your genre-niche into their profile. If they didn’t like your words they’d never have gotten to that point 😉

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