The literary agents who speak at London Writers’ Club Live events are very clear about what they love in a book but also on why they reject a book.
One of the things they frequently cite as a reason for rejection, is that the story isn’t strong enough. I believe this happens when the author is so immersed in creating the detail and events of their fictional world and their characters that they forget the bigger picture, otherwise known as the plot.
This is pretty common in a first draft, it is easy to see why it happens and nothing to worry about, but if we aren’t wise to it then it will persist into subsequent drafts and can lead to rejection.
It occurs because we first need to imagine and scope out these important aspects of a novel. To put them on paper to see what we have. Where the confusion arises is that we develop the detail, whether that is our series of events, our back stories and sub plots so well that we come to see them as heart of the book, as the plot.
The fact is, the majority of this material is for your eyes alone, so that whatever plot turns and twists are thrown at your protagonist, you will know how she will act or react because you’ve done that work. However useful it is and enjoyable it was to write, you don’t need to tell the reader all of it. It is a resource for you to draw upon.
When we talk of the number of drafts, and we do often – Stephen King saying he can do up to 16 – often its not clear what extent of rewriting is involved in each draft. Anything from 5 or 10% upwards is my benchmark. And sometimes it is more efficient, and less painful, to perform just one task in each read through.
To avoid the detail trap, give this a try: don’t call your first draft, first draft, but call it pre-draft and treat it as source material that you will write a powerful first draft from, drawing the best and most impactful material that really pushes the story along. (if you call it research you might be tempted just to make notes and not really start properly.)
Your Ready to Pitch Challenge today, if you are willing, is to open your manuscript, armed with a highlighter and mark all of those sentences and scenes, pages which are background information or sub-plot. With another colour mark plot and action, that is anything that moves the story forward. What is the balance? It should be with the plot. Choose a chapter and take out the background material, chances are you will see a marked improvement.