This agent submission pack review was for a work of literary fiction by a first-time novelist who is just staring out. I was reviewing his letter to agents, synopsis and the first 5,000 words of his novel (everything he would send to an agent).

(Names and identifying features have been changed to protect the privacy of the author.)

The original 2,200-word critique has been cut here for length and readability, with much detailed analysis of plot points and content removed.


I've had a good look at your submission materials for “The Remnant” and my impression, reading your letter and synopsis, is that this is an interesting novel that ought to catch the interest of agents. There is no doubt you have real talent. However, I do think I see why you have been frustrated so far with negative responses to your submissions. I think the problem lies in your manuscript. What comes across to me from the 5,000-word section I read – and I'm going to be really blunt here, Jonathan – is that you are still developing your voice and skills as a writer. The prose comes across as still being at an experimental stage rather than as fully mature, grounded writing. I think this is probably the perfect time for you to get constructive professional feedback on your writing, so I will explain my impressions in as much detail as I can (based on the smallish segment I read) in the hope of being as much help as possible. But first let me comment on your agent letter and synopsis as we obviously want them to be as good as you can make them when the time comes for you to submit to more agents.

Agent letter -

Your letter is well structured and, on the whole, I think does the job very well. As I say, I certainly think it should catch an agent's attention. I do have a few comments, though.

I think there are a few things you can remove from your letter without conveying any less. Agents have to read through dozens of these in a day – don't let that put you off; they are reading them because they are looking for something that catches their eye. But it does mean they will resent any single unnecessary word in an author's letter. I would advise cutting the first and last paragraphs. Saying you hope your letter finds them well is polite but I fear it may irritate them as it is beside the point – they are not here to chat. Ditto the “I truly hope” paragraph at the end: again, it is polite but unnecessary; they will take what you say here for granted. I also think you could cut the intro, “By way of introduction” from your statement about yourself (which is otherwise excellent) for the same reason. You might as well impress them with your economy and lack of wasted words right from the start.

I have been mulling over the two paragraphs in your letter that deal with the story of your novel [Quotations removed here]. I think they are almost excellent but something isn't quite working for me. What you're saying isn't crystal clear. Basically, I think the first of these paras comes across as an introduction to the main themes and thrust of the novel and the second is a potted synopsis. This is great, except that the second paragraph does not stand alone as a description of the story. [Detailed comments about how the story is described in the letter removed]. I also wonder if it might be wise to omit the word “tragic” from your letter in describing your novel. Plenty of tragic novels get published but I am concerned that the word conjures up an idea of a novel that is downbeat, gloomy and possibly even a bit melodramatic.

Lastly, I would be wary of describing the story as a vehicle. The story is the body and soul of a novel; we don't want it to be a vehicle for something else that you want to say. Could you not simply say that it's a love story exploring the two characters' relationships with each other and with themselves? It's shorter too and more straightforward, which are both always a plus.

Synopsis -

Your synopsis is generally well written and clear. However, it goes into too much detail, especially the second half. Your synopsis will be more striking if you make it more punchy and economical. I think pruning it back to the bones of the story will make it really impactful. I'd say you don't need to explain quite so much about Helen's involvement but don't prune it beyond the point where you can tell the story clearly and straightforwardly; that's more important than brevity.

[Paragraph removed here explaining why I found a particular point in the synopsis unclear]

Manuscript sample chapters -

So now to your manuscript. As I said, I'm going to be very tough, Jonathan, because I am convinced you have what it takes to become a published writer. You can write excellent paragraphs. Once you get into your stride in Chapter One there are some terrific moments; for example the paragraph on page 6 (on my computer – might differ on yours) where we first meet Connor. We get a fabulously vivid impression of what he looks like, and a sense of his subtle vanity. This is very good writing but, to be perfectly honest, an agent looking at your current manuscript isn't going to get that far.

The problem is the prologue. I often find that authors working on their first novel start with complicated and intense prose – not only are we keen to impress at the start but the start is also where it's hardest to find the right tone and pitch. I really struggled with your first paragraph. I have to be honest and say that I had no idea what you were saying. I had no idea who “she” was, what age, where, who the others there were, or what was going on in her thoughts. Readers will tolerate a certain amount that is unexplained in the opening paragraphs of a novel but there needs to be something absolutely clear to engage them. I was left baffled by the first paragraph. Re-reading it, having read the rest of the prologue, I can now see what you were thinking but it really needs to make sense on first reading. Remember, an agent (or any reader) is going to make their mind up about you from the first paragraph or two.

The second paragraph was equally baffling to me. [Detailed discussion of second paragraph removed.] I'm honestly not being obtuse here, Jonathan. Remember your reader knows nothing when they open the manuscript. Great writing always dazzles by its clarity; even where where a novel starts with mystery for the reader, there will always be some thread of total clarity the reader can follow from the first sentence onwards. I have no doubt that you can write your prologue to be clear and engaging and to enable the reader to know what you are talking about. I think this will make a huge difference. I don't honestly think you gain anything by the obscurity of the opening pages except to alienate us.

Once you get to Chapter One your writing becomes clear and readable. I have just a few comments about the content of the section I read.

[Detailed discussion of narrative content removed]

Your prose style is good and generally accurate. I get the sense you are experimenting with how to use language creatively in your writing. This is a great thing as part of the process of developing your writing and is evidence of your curiosity and mental agility; however, as your writing matures it's important that you use words to mean what the reader will understand by them and not use them to mean things they don't mean, even in a spirit of playfulness. I'm talking about things like “backwash” at the start of chapter two. The problem is the reader will try and imagine a backwash here with its proper definition, which simply doesn't work in this situation, so their mental image will stumble. [More examples removed here] The same goes for sentence structure. I may sound boring but your sentences need to convey their meaning clearly without the reader having to decode how the sentence works; so playful, unconventional sentence structures tend to get in the way. Most of the time your sentences work fine; there's just the occasional phrase like “casting stark contrast” that isn't quite real English and will cause us to have to re-read it. Sometimes you use sentence structures which, while accurate, are more convoluted than they need to be. I think this is just a question of practice. More often than not sentences with sub-clauses can be re-organised so you can say exactly the same thing without using sub-clauses and as a rule it looks more elegant and flows better.

[Concluding remarks removed here]