Journey to a Bestseller: How An Agent Can Read ONE Chapter and Know If Your Book is Any Good (Series #35)

Good Sunday everyone! Today’s calendar says, “There is always a way.” True. And if you are querying, that way is not giving up. MOST people attempt to publish before the book it’s ready and then get disappointed when they receive rejections galore. They end up shelving a good manuscript and moving on when the answer was to go back for another draft … or two.

Having multiple opinions on your work before submitting it is important. You need to find another writer in your genre to swap manuscripts with. Another writer is going to know more about what you are attempting and can give you better feedback on how to fix it. Rather than Gramma June saying, “It’s lovely, dear. I couldn’t put it down, it had a rough patch or two, but I loved it.” Thanks Gramma June, but that’s not helpful advice at all.

What? I can hear you asking. How is that not helpful? She couldn’t put it down, so that means it’s good, right? First of all, Gramma is not reading impartially. She has a bias and a reason to lift you up and support you. The most helpful thing she said was, “It had a rough patch or two.” You need to know where that is, because if it was hard for Gramma, it’s going to make you lose readers, or worse, get a review listing bad news for other readers.

You need to ask Gramma where those spots were and what she did and didn’t like about them. Revise, re-edit, resubmit. If your goal is traditional publishing with a Top 5 house, you must have an agent. It is required. Don’t spam all agents’ social media profiles. Follow the correct steps: research your potential agents, make a spreadsheet, jot down their wishlist items that pertain to you, write a killer query letter (Here’s how to do that), personalize each email, and send to the appropriate email or site page.

I have learned exponentially in the past five years of working in publishing. When I first started agenting, I didn’t know how to tell a “great” manuscript from a “good” one. I thought I did, but I wasn’t sure. Let me tell you, if you don’t know, you don’t know. I asked around for other people’s perspectives, but everyone told me, you just know. But, how? It takes time to learn, and no agent is going to clue you in on how to discover, or how to write, a great manuscript. First of all, because it’s subjective, and a “great” manuscript to me, could be another agent’s hard pass. That is mostly true, and it’s what I thought in the beginning. But there are things that must be done to succeed in any genre. It’s the writer’s job to know if their manuscript has what it takes before they submit it, so read on to learn a few things to do, and avoid.

An agent should be able to recognize a great manuscript in any genre. I can’t teach you how to do it, just as they couldn’t teach me, it’s a learning process. But the reason isn’t because they don’t want you to know, it just involves knowing so much about a piece of work, checking off internal checklists. It’s exhausting trying to think of everything. There is no definitive list to give you. Sorry. I just know when I read it if it’s following the rules or not.

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I hear you, I hear you. But how does the author know what they are looking for? How could the agents possibly know from the first chapter if the book is any good? That’s not possible. Yes, my friend, it is.

When I’m looking at the beginning of a manuscript I am looking to see if we started in the right place, if we connect with the character, what the inciting incident is and if it occurred naturally; if the author showed us their normal life before the inciting incident. I am listening to the storyteller’s voice and watching sentence structure. Remember, you have to believe your book is ready to publish as is. Yes, the agent will edit it, and so will the publishing house editor, but unless you feel it is ready, it’s not. Trust me on this. If you doubt it, do a “kindle read.” Don’t submit a manuscript that you know has edits that need to be done.

{What’s a “Kindle Read?” I’ve talked about this before. Your brain fills in gaps and overlooks mistakes in familiar documents, but if you change a document in any way, i.e. color, size, or font, your brain sees it as a completely new document and the mistakes are obvious. You can use a Kindle or the Kindle app (you don’t have to have a physical Kindle to do this). First, find out what your Kindle email is. It’s usually your own email @kindle.com. (Look in the “documents” section.) Make sure to add your own email address as an “approved sender,” then email your manuscript to your Kindle. Let me tell you, when you read your manuscript like a “real” book, those mistakes just jump out at you. The same way you notice other people’s mistakes when you’re reading. It’s so much easier when it’s someone else, right? Lol.}

Grammar and spelling must be correct or at least show the foundation of knowledge that tells me you know what you’re doing. The beginning of the book needs to introduce the main characters and show us a bit of their normal world, but within the first chapter we’d better get to see something happen. If not the inciting incident, something leading up to it, with a promise that it’s coming soon.

I have a direct competitor on Amazon who is going against the rules. After their title, the subtitle has the names of two very popular book series. That’s not allowed, but no one has reported them yet, so they are flying along on the winds of those other books’ success. It’s unfortunate for the rest of us who are following directions. The book has about 20-some mostly good reviews, unverified, and two of them call the book literally “trash.” As a direct competitor, I wanted to know what I was competing with, so I read the first part of the book with the “Look Inside” feature. I read the first three chapters, and every tiny thought and action had been described in the narrative with so much detail, by the end of the first chapter, nothing had happened. There was no inciting incident. By the end of the third chapter, I’d met three people through their own perspectives, but I wasn’t any closer to having something happen.

I think the author is on to something, and supposedly (the reviews say) it picks up about halfway through, but are you going to force yourself through half a book? Why would you? There are so many others. It’s the call of those two famous books’ fans. They want something new, but just like the books they loved so much, they’ll push through it to get to the good part. But without the draw of the other titles, this wouldn’t be doing as well.

I don’t say that to say they are a bad author or anything like that. But do I think it could have used an editor? Yes. Please, you don’t need to go point out my own faults, I know what they are. And my earlier works are terrible. I know. My first book published will not be anywhere as good as my last. You grow as a writer each time you write a book and learn how to edit. We all do. It’s just a matter of where you are in your author journey.

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You can tell by reading a full page that someone wrote if they are a good writer or not sometimes. If the paper sounds like it was written by a first grader, it’s obvious. Right? It’s the same way with an agent and a book. I can’t describe what would tell me a paper was typed by a child as opposed to an adult, but it’s in the words, in the voice, in the pacing, in the vocabulary, the grammatical knowledge, and in the audience they are speaking to.

It’s hard to write a book that is enough like other popular books to be comparable, yet sound different. It takes work. But that’s why the “great” books have done so well. They fit nicely into advertising categories, but have a different view or a twist on the same old storyline.

Your story needs structure. Here’s a short post about that. I know, I know, you’re trying to be unique and do something different. Whoa. This isn’t the place to do it. There are places to break out, but many things are non-negotiable, like consistency and pacing that cycles from action to reaction, etc. Use your words wisely. Know your word count goals and what you’re shooting for. Just know that if you write a novella-sized book, even if it’s fabulous, unless it is the the promo piece of another full-length work, it’s an auto-rejection for a full length book in your genre. You need to go through and see what scenes can be fleshed out, or make some additional scenes, or maybe add in a subplot. Or if your book is too long, cut, cut, cut. For starters, there are a few words that you should cut anyway.

One of those non-negotiable words is “THAT.” We use this word so often that it’s hard to think of an example. I crack myself up. Look at the sentence in bold. If you cut out the word “that,” it reads, “We use this word so often, it’s hard to think of an example.” It strengthens the sentence. And that’s what we are trying to do. Remember, don’t just cut out every “that” with the “replace” feature; sometimes it is necessary, as in the last bold sentence.

Here is a post about 28 words you should cut from your mansucript.

One of the things I have listed in that post is an issue I see a lot in editing: Dialogue vs. action tags and how to use them correctly.

Only use dialogue tags “SAID” or “ASKED.” “Said” is called a non-word because when a reader sees it, they don’t actually READ the word. It’s understood, it doesn’t register. When the reader sees words like, “exclaimed, cried, yelled, and whispered,” their brains slow down to read the word. It interrupts the flow. What you want is for the reader to follow the dialogue smoothly, and the best way to do that is with “SAID.” Most of the time, dialogue tags are not even necessary.

“Go to sleep.” Billy’s mother peeked her head through the doorway.

“I can’t. I need a drink.” Billy pulled his covers up and folded his arms.

“You’ve had two drinks, and a story.”

“But I want another one. Please?” He gave his mother his best puppy-dog pout.

“Maybe one more…”

Consider the conversation above. There is not one dialogue tag. No one “SAID” anything. And likely, you still followed the conversation with some idea of whom was speaking, with the addition of some character placement. Let your readers breeze through your conversations with “SAID” and action tags.

When you write a sentence that denotes someone speaking (the dialogue tag says the speaker “said,” “asked,” “stated,” whatever), you use a comma instead of a period and the tag begins with a lower case letter. As in:

“I ate the eggs,” he said. *See the comma after “eggs” instead of a period and lower case “H.”

If it requires an exclamation point, or question mark, the dialogue tag is still lower case. As in:

“You ate all the eggs?” she asked. *Notice “she” is still lower case.

If the tag is anything other than a speaking tag, it’s called an “action tag.” With an action tag, the sentence ends with a period, exclamation, or question mark (no commas), and the tag begins with a capital letter. As in:

“Yes, I did. And they were delicious.” He burped and wiped his mouth. *Notice the period inside the quotes, and capital “H.”

Watch out for redundant phrasing like ADD UP, ADVANCE FORWARD, SIT DOWN, ADDED BONUS, ANONYMOUS STRANGER, or BALD HEADED. Just say “they advanced,” or “she sat,” the “stranger waved,” he “was bald.”

Building your world is fun, and you should absolutely make yourself a rudimentary map at the least so that you can see where the characters are going. If they head East to get somewhere, later they will either need to continue East or return to the West. But you’ll remember that. Maybe. Don’t chance it, you can really see your world in your mind when you do this. I personally suggest using Inkarnate.com‘s free program to make a map of your world. I used it to make my last book’s world. This was all done for free:

And they’ve just released new features. I need to go back and check it out.

Here’s a tip for world building: describe everything your characters see, touch or come into contact with, and nothing they don’t. It’s best done by incorporating the descriptions into the narrative so you don’t leave an info dump. The characters need to interact with what you’re describing. Let me explain with an example.

She followed him into the house to wait for the others. It was a two-story Victorian with a curling bannister of polished wood, and an old-style coat rack. The kitchen was a sunny yellow, with an open book on the table. The living room had a navy leather couch, two beige chairs and a coffee table covered in a pile of decorating magazines. The master bedroom was on the main floor and the king sized bed was covered in a quilt. A mahogany dresser stood next to a lamp. She hoped to check it out later. He asked her how she’d been. She said she was great.

Okay, the paragraph above is an info dump because I wrote a bunch of information without having anyone come into contact with any of it. It’s just a paragraph of information with no point, it doesn’t advance the story or really tell us about the characters. Besides, you don’t walk into a house and automatically know all this stuff. So give it to us as she comes into contact with it. It doesn’t have to be much longer, but it will probably be longer than the info dump. This just means, make sure all your scenes count. And if it’s not necessary to the plot, take it out. Write the story, not fluff. Read what I do with the above paragraph:

She followed him into the house. It was a refurbished Victorian. She was enchanted and ran her hand over the polished wood bannister that curled up to the second floor. He took her coat and hung it on an old-style coat rack.

“Are you thirsty?” He led her to a sunny yellow kitchen that smelled like lemon cleaner.

“No, I’m okay,” she said, trying to see the title of the book he had left open on the table, but she didn’t recognize it. “The others will be here soon.”

He continued on to the living room and motioned for her to sit. She smiled as she plopped down on a navy leather couch. It was cool to the touch. He sat in one of the pair of beige chairs facing her, and picked up a magazine, absently curling it on his lap. She noticed that all his magazines were about house decorating and was impressed.

From her seat she could see into the master bedroom. A quilt covered the king-size bed across from a mahogany chest of drawers and standing lamp. He had obviously been reading those magazines.

“How have you been?” he asked.

She blushed when he caught her looking at the bed. It had been awhile, that’s for sure. If she played her cards right, they’d be back here later. She smiled. “I’m great.”

Better? Yes. Longer? Definitely. But it needed to be done. Go through your writing and where you see a laundry list of description, ease it into the narrative and add some dialogue. Even if they are talking to themselves, it breaks up the paragraphs and keeps the pacing in tempo.

I try to write out everything I want to say, and then check the word count when I’m done. If I need to cut, I can. But I usually end up writing the simple stuff, then go back and embellish. But to reiterate: Write about everything they come into contact and that they need to see, hear, smell, touch, or taste.

Resist the urge to tell us everything at once. Make the characters have full five-senses experiences. When you break up an info dump like that, you end up knowing more about the story than you did before.

Also, don’t tell us they said something, make them say it with dialogue. Then don’t tell us she was doubtful, have her listen with one brow raised, and her mouth pursed. Don’t tell us he was afraid of the noise, have him hear the noise and start to feel a quaking in his very spirit that travels to his hands and shakes the flashlight’s beam. Don’t tell us she’s depressed, have it come out in her actions and the things she says. The motto is: SHOW don’t TELL.

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Along with descriptive narrative and dialogue is the internal thoughts issue. If you are writing in past tense, the italicized direct thoughts should be in the present, just like the characters’ dialogue, because it is dialogue, just internal. Even in first person, present tense, direct thoughts are in italics. For example:

I brought the groceries in and nearly dropped them at the door. Geez, I’m a clutz. I tripped over to the kitchen, barely making it to the counter before the bag ripped. I should use double bags; it happens every time. When will I learn? I put the groceries away and took a shower.

If it’s in your head, use italics. That means if a scene is remembered, or understood by a character, but it’s taking place in someone’s head, it goes in italics. Dreams also go in italics, as well as visions, reveries, etc.

You’ll want to take what I’ve just said about breaking up info dumps in world-building, and apply it to character-building as well. You don’t want your character standing in front of a mirror describing themselves. I don’t usually describe a person fully in one paragraph. Just the things the other character notices when they first meet. But sometimes, you want a bit of history with the character description.

When describing a character, if you need to give a full description in one chunk, link each description to the reason why it is the way it is. As in this description:

“She was small for a girl her age, the shortest one in the class photo. Her glasses were taped on the side from her sister, Penny, repeatedly knocking them off her head; but her wiry hair kept the tape partially covered until she tucked it behind her ear. Her clothes were either too small or too big, depending on how much her older sister had grown that year. And her shoes were perpetually full of holes from walking the gravel road home, the laces trailing behind her. The only feature she really enjoyed was the brilliant blue color of her eyes, that appeared to be hers alone and not handed down from anyone.”

See? Every description of the girl comes with a bit of story, or a reason why it is the way it is. Her glasses are taped because her sister hits her. Her clothes don’t fit because she wears hand-me-downs and has to wear whatever doesn’t fit her older sister. She probably fends for herself and has a lonely home life. No social life. Her shoes are holey we know, because she lives on a gravel road. So either small town, back in time, or a remote place. We are getting a lot of info in this one small paragraph. For more detail on writing descriptions, click here.

In a manuscript I would accept as an agent, all these things must be present. And more. See what I mean? If you feel overwhelmed at all this, stop and breathe. You’ll get there. But I encourage you to keep pushing through and make your book better and better, and then shoot for that Top 5 house that you really dream of. Practice excellence in your writing. Learn what you need to know to make your manuscript the best story of your life.

Then give us readers your fast-paced beginnings, introducing your characters and your world, and showing us the character’s norm. Then spring an inciting incident on us. It will shake up the characters’ lives, and we will know their regular routine, so we can appreciate what a change they are going through.

Make their motivations clear and the situation plausible. Even if you are in another world, the rules still apply, especially with breaking up those info dumps. Use tropes to your advantage. They are tropes because they are popular subjects, they have an audience. If you are smart, you’ll judge the market and see what’s selling and what makes those books so popular, then sit down and write that story with a twist. You’ll catch the trend when you can spit out a great book quick enough. Don’t worry, trends last for a long time.

If you are not the best speller, run spell check (I use Grammarly) but make sure you don’t just accept every suggestion. Sometimes the computer messes up. Know enough to know when you’re right. Know your sentence structure.

Draw us into your story with great details and exciting narrative, with action tags and use of “said” and “asked.” Make sure your storytelling “voice” (or the way you tell your story) is appropriate for your genre. Middle Grade books have a different voice than YA, children’s, or adult stories. So speak to your audience, but don’t speak down, or dumb down, your words. Trust your audience to follow you.

There’s so much more, but I assure you that if an agent picks up your first few chapters, and all these things are not present and done well, you get a pass. These things are so fundamental that if they are missing, there are more drafts required to fix it than they have time for. The agent has to believe you are one revision away from publishing, then they edit to the point it is ready. The publishing house editor should be merely polishing at that point. Can you see how an agent would be able to look at your submission and reject it? If everything I’ve talked about is present, then they can concentrate on the structure of the story and the unique twist you’ve put on your book. If you are close enough, they’ll give you what’s called an “R & R,” which is a revise and resubmit allowance. They’ll let you do another draft and try again. If you sufficiently fix what was bothering them, they’ll take the book.

Sometimes people take an R&R and edit another draft, but don’t pay attention to the advice that the agent has given them. This is information that they want to see in your story. If you don’t agree with them, take it to another agent. Because you can’t just ignore their advice and hand it back. If you haven’t changed it the way they asked, A. they know you either don’t follow directions, or you aren’t computing, and B. either way, you didn’t do what they thought would sell the book, so it’s a pass.

If an established agent at a reputable agency suggests an R&R, you know that it’s getting there, and you are on the right track. Re-edit and send to other agents.

Read all you can about writing. I suggest On Writing by Stephen King, and It was the Best of Sentences, it was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande. Actually any of her books would be good, but start with this one. I also liked Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

My best advice for writers is learn, learn, learn. I don’t want to give you a fish, I want to teach you how to fish, so you can do it for yourself, time and time again. You’re going to have to learn it eventually, right? learn it now and get a leg up.

See you next week! Keep writing!

~jenn

P.S. Next week I’ll tell you about my AMS and Bookbub ad progress, as well as the state of the manuscript. I am not sure what, but something needs to change. My last read through made me much less confident of its worth. I know I can do better. It’s tempting to shelf this one and start over, but I am going to press on. I’m going to edit until it’s the masterpiece I was hoping for. If I can’t, then I’ll start over. I’ll keep you up to date.

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