I'm taking today's topic from a spring SCBWI WWA workshop with agent Tina Wexler. The topic- observations from the manuscript pile. Tina is an agent at International Creative Management (ICM). She represents middle grade and YA fiction, with a particular interest in magical realism and gothic paranormal. You can check out ICM at http://www.icmtalent.com/ .
So first question- What are problems agents see in manuscripts that turn them off? Tina mentions three huge fauxpas; the story is too quiet and there's not enough to the book, its a knock off of another story or the pitch or hook is too gimmicky.
Next question- What catches an agent's eye? For Tina its a strong hook and a great opening.
What about character's? Well, they better have a strong voice. Tina says, "Lack of a distinct voice is the number one reason I pass on manuscripts." She continues on by saying that words in the story are the clues she uses to hear a voice in her head. Also, make your characters memorable. She doesn't pass on a manuscript because she hates a character, but because she doesn't know enough about them or doesn't want to get to know them. She stresses, make sure what you know about the characters gets down on the page. It doesn't do anybody any good if its still in your head.
What else makes her pass on a book? She tells us that she hates plots that are too predictable and easy, plots that are boring and plots that are too twisty and confusing instead of engaging. However she mentions that plot problems are the easiest things to fix.
So what does she want to see in plots? Tina wants a strong setting, sharp dialogue that is unique to your characters and a satisfying ending, not necessarily happy.
Examples of manuscripts that passed and are now books include, Joel Naftali's THE RENDERING, Anne Ursu's BREADCRUMBS and Mara Purnhagen's BEYOND THE GRAVE.