Top Ten Things Agents and Editors Never Want to See

Kate McKean is a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter @kate_mckean. She’s writing a YA novel, too, so she feels your pain.

Editors and agents read thousands of pitches, queries, and manuscripts every year. Some of the same ideas and plots pop up here and there. But there are things that appear all the time, and there are things that appear ALL. THE. TIME. Don’t be that writer. Avoid the following:

(Note: All of these are taken from queries and manuscripts myself and my colleagues have seen hundreds of times. Details have been changed to protect the clueless.)

“My book is the Next Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games!”

That’s like walking into a music studio and saying you’re the next Lady Gaga. No one wants Lady Gaga II. That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be a YA superstar and sell millions of copies, but we’re not looking for the next Rowling, Meyers, or Collins. And why would you want to be like someone else? Be your own superstar. (Plus, the people who really are going to be the next big bestsellers are so focused on writing good books, they don’t have time to brag about how famous they’re going to be, tempting as it is.)

“She was just an ordinary girl.”

Please. People read books to escape ordinary people. Why would you want to read a story about an ordinary girl? I want to read about EXTRAORDINARY girls and boys and aliens and vampires and ghosts and oversized gnomes. You get the point. While your main character might end up extraordinary by the end, don’t call attention to how boring she is at the start. Just get to the story. And if she really is a completely average nondescript human being, perhaps the query letter is not your biggest problem.

“my book is the best u should totally publish is tell me if you want to publish it andthen i’ll tell you ALL ABOUT IT!”

If something you write could get mistaken for a Kanye West tweet, you’re doing something horribly, horribly wrong. Your work should be grammatically correct and use standard formatting (all lower case letters might look cool, but they will drive an editor, agent, and your grandmother BONKERS). But when you’re trying to get an agent or editor, don’t forget to tell them about the story! They’re not going to jump through hoops to read yours if you’re being difficult, lazy, or paranoid.

“But I mean everything I SAY to sound like this in DIALOG!”

Giving a character a verbal tick or specific way of speaking may seem like a good way to develop their personality or differentiate them from other characters. Except it’s as annoying in a story as it would be in real life. Plus, not every reader is going to read it as you intended. I read the above sentence like a whiney Valley Girl. You could read it like she was really, really angry. Confusing, like, dialogue IS, like, THE worst.

“I DIDN’T ASK FOR THIS.” *shakes fist at the sky*

Maybe this is just me, but when a character discovers her secret power/skill/mission/heritage, and gets huffy and doesn’t want to explore it, I think she’s just a big baby. The reader knows she’s going to come around eventually, or the next 200 pages are going to be pretty boring. But it’s also not a very interesting reaction. Get over yourself, girlfriend, and go kick some butt in the rest of the story.

The Perfect Boy/Nerdy Boy or Perfect Cheerleader/Ugly Duckling Lazy Love Triangle.

We’ve all seen this. Heck, there’s been a hundred teen movies about it (many we still love to watch). But in today’s competitive YA market, this is a well-worn cliché that will not get you noticed by agents or editors. Flipping it on its head isn’t the fix either. Jock is a closet singer? Perfect Cheerleader struggles to keep it together? Been done. Aim to write stories about real, live characters, not clichés and stereotypes. “But that’s the way it happened in real life!” We don’t care if you found a blank check and filled it out for a million dollars and got the money and built a theme park and never got caught. We’re not buying that book. Most fiction is rooted in real life, either something that happened to the author, or someone they know, read about, or overheard in a coffee shop. But fiction isn’t real life, by definition. Real life is sometimes stranger than fiction. Your reader has to trust you, and if you present events to them that look unbelievable on the page, even if they happened in real life, they will stop reading your book. Write things that fit in the reality of your book’s world. (And if you actually had to fight to the death on national TV, I’m really, really sorry. I hope you won!)

She’s new in town, but the omghottttest guy in school falls madly in love with her at first sight.

Can this happen? Sure! But why does it happen so much in YA novels? It’s a convenient way to introduce a character and get a love story going, that’s why. But it’s been done so many times it makes agents and editors beat their heads against their desks. It can also appear a little Mary Sue-ish. Really? The lab partner, the quarterback, the student council president, AND the principal’s son are in love with her?

“Grrrr! That guy makes me so mad! Why do I care what he thinks?”

Newsflash! The reader knows why—it’s because she likes him! Avoid making your characters look clueless. Don’t let the reader get ahead of them in their realizations. We all know Susie likes Aggravating Boy. Give your character some of self-awareness and your readers will follow you wherever you go.

Introducing. . . . . . Quhaytlynn. Keight instead of Kate. Crystyn instead of Kristen. Kheaven instead of Kevin. Jyawn instead of John. Eternity, vampire. ?uest, the lost soul. Wtckllkrstn, the princess.

Come on now, people. Imagine reading those names a few hundred times per book, multiplied by a few dozen books per year. You’d go crazy. You’d be picking at your eyeballs with toothpicks. Pick the right name for your characters. Don’t try too hard to mean something. And a handy hint? Names should have both consonants and vowels, but not numbers or symbols.

Follow these tips and you’ll make editors and agents happy around the world. (And you’ll make your story stronger in the process). Next time we’ll talk about the ten things editors and agents LOVE to see. Stay tuned.

Previously on “Pub Talk with Kate McKean”: Snowflake Sentences and the Delete Key

37 thoughts on “Top Ten Things Agents and Editors Never Want to See

    • I have seen the clueless girl one in a bunch of books, like, in the Princess Diaries, The Extraordanairy Secrets of April May and June, and thousands more. Plus they’re all pretty new. I guess that they’ve crossed their limit for clueless girl books?

  1. LOL! Great tips! Especially the name one. I never ever have gotten the appeal of making a name so hard to decipher. We named our daughter Jaden (which was no where near as popular then as it is now) And we sat there in the hospital debating on how to spell it. We chose to go simple and easy. But you know what…WE are the weirdos because everyone else adds the y and i and whatever else!!

  2. great tips, Keight! (*wink*) And LOL@Kanye query, and the ordinary girl with the lab partner, student council president, quarterback, & principal’s son in love w/her… :D Best tip of all? Be your own superstar. Yay. :o)

  3. Oh my goodness, this was hilarious! Thanks. And I’m not an agent or editor, but the same things apply when workshopping someone’s work, reading a student manuscript, or being in a critique group! Don’t do these things, people. EVER.

  4. She’s new in town, but the omghottttest guy in school falls madly in love with her at first sight

    Bah, I hate that one. Thanks so much for letting us all know!

  5. Good advice, fortunately I have not fallen into any of those cliches yet. It always amazes what people come up with and think is appropriate. XD

  6. Hmm. Seems to me like the “clueless girl” no-no is in tons of books … why is he acting this way towards me? I’ve seen it in Meg Cabot, Elizabeth Eulberg, and more. They got published just fine …

    • Well, I think because it’s been used by people like Meg Cabot, who can pretty much get away with anything in realistic fiction at this point, it’s become a cliché because of them.

  7. If you don’t want us to compare to best sellers, and we shouldn’t want to be like someone else why is it so often stated that a good well researched query will refer to a similar book stating they have the same audience? I hear all the time you shouldn’t do this, and I think there are some valid reasons not to, but then every workshop you go to tells you to let the agent know you know who your audience is. What are we supposed to do?

  8. This is interesting. I agree, totally and completely. Just wondering, not to sound rude, but does the third idea count for two ideas? If it doesn’t, then there are only nine tips on this page. But I don’t mean to complain. I totally agree and I think that if every writer read this, the book out there would be ten times better.

  9. I absolutely agree with all of those. And if you think about it, the ideas that are now considered cliche were once original ideas a long time ago. Someone must have come up with them first. Just putting it out there ;)

  10. lol ur artcle is ttalli AWESOME AND it TOOOOTLI hlpD my ritin scells. ima rit a bok bout vampires hoo fal in luv! sew cuutteee!

    Yes, I’m kidding. I thoroughly enjoyed your article, by the way.

  11. I love the name advice. I think hard about my character names. But not to make them obscure and unique. I look up French names for a French character and what the original meaning is and find one that applies to my character. Or just what fits them best. But I don’t look for something weird. Such as ‘what’s the meaning of the name Danielle?’ ‘Does that suit her?’ Etc. It’s work but I feel more satisfied. :)

    • I do the same thing, especially when the character is from a different culture or time period. If I know a name is realistic for the character, I have an easier time developing them.

  12. Don’t forget to make sure you have that BA or MFA because without it you’re lucky to get your query letter read. Unless you’re lucky enough to find a company like Uneak Press, Inc. I was blessed!

  13. So true! And now I know the story I’m working on does not fit into the stereotype and can be considered “original” based on this haha, makes me feel better.

  14. Wow. These are great! Just don’t get too paranoid, like, “Ohmygosh. My story has SO MANY THINGS that have a slight remote connection to these!” That happens to me a lot…

    • Oh, and perhaps you could put something about how to write a good query letter on here at some point? That would be great. :)

  15. Thanks for these tips and for encouraging both clarity and creativity in aspiring writers. These articles are important and helpful to a lot of people, so I appreciate your time and effort in presenting this.

    I always feel concern when an instructor — whether a teacher or someone who writes instructional articles — doesn’t use proper grammar. One of my pet peeves as an editor is the misuse of “myself,” as you demonstrated in this article: “All of these are taken from queries and manuscripts myself and my colleagues have seen hundreds of times.”

    “Myself” is never the subject of a sentence or clause. (You wouldn’t say, “Myself has seen these…”) In this case, “I and my colleagues” or “my colleagues and I” would have been correct.

    I just wanted to add this, not to criticize you, but to encourage your readers (and future writers!) to use proper grammar in their writing. Thanks for all your work.

  16. Yes! I’ve been thinking about these things for so long but no one has ever come out and said them! Clueless, ordinary…..sometimes it’s sweet but sometimes you’ve had enough.

  17. Ha ha… Man, the story that I’m writing that I like falls under so many of those categories. And yet the one that I’m writing that I don’t really appreciate is so much more original and interesting.

    Its really nice to hear a voice of reason every now and then. Thanks for the tips.

  18. All this sounds very reasonable, but if editors reject cliches and popular-book-take-offs, how come so many are still published?

  19. SO WITH YOU on the names issue. I have put down so many fantasy novels that I would probably love because the character names were unpronounceable and therefore I couldn’t keep the characters straight.

    On “future mommy boards”, women naming their children are picking up on this awful trend. We’re heading for a generation of kids who can’t read or pronounce each other’s names. It’s just lovely.

  20. like, omg, you TOTALLY summed up my book with, like, all of THOSE examples!
    Great list. I think sometimes even those of us who aspire to be our own superstar might fall into one or more of these ubiquitous traps. After so much exposure, they kind of seep in, you know?

  21. My synopsis has the words ‘ordinary girl’ in it. ._. But, at the beginning of my story, everyone is ordinary. >_> Hmm.

  22. This is really good and it makes me glad that somebodys trying to get the point across that these things are bad. A few things bugged me though. Personally, I prefer reading a book about an ordinary girl who becomes extraordinary because it secretly promises that not only book characters can have thrilling adventures. I also find that I am much disappointed when I read a book that has
    names like Kate or Mary in less they really fit the character or mean something. I like the name to be pronounceable but not careless.

    Two more things:
    1. In this sentence “Giving a character a verbal tick or specific way of speaking may seem like agood way to develop their personality or differentiate them from other characters.” you spelled “A” and “Good” as “agood”.

    2. And in this sentence “Except it’s as annoying in a story as it would be in real life..” there is two periods.

    Sorry, I am really touchy about obvious grammar mistakes though I make them all the time…. I can’t wait to see the ten things editors love to see!

    -A 13 year old girl

  23. this is so funny, and I completely agree with all of these! the one where people try to convince you that their character is really very boring particularly annoys me, especially when the character has “Just one small special trait” such as shooting lightning out of there fingers or reading minds! No, I have not actually seen these particular two, but I’ve seen many like them! all the really prissy ones that involve romance bother me too!

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