“What do you look for in a book?” is something I get asked a fair amount. I have answers, too: a memorable main character, a setting that fits well with the person the main character is, a well-paced plot, and other characteristics of a book that will keep me reading to the end. But I’m also one of those people who learns by touching and having concrete, real-world examples, so I want to share my favorite analogy regarding what I look for when I consider a manuscript for possible representation. (This applies to all works, for any age.)
When it comes to houses, there are some things that aren’t really negotiable in terms of making it livable. The foundation can’t be cracked. The walls should be straight. The roof should not leak. The plumbing needs to work. It can’t be infested with anything that has more legs than I do. To me, a manuscript is very much like a house. It also needs a solid foundation and structure. It can’t have giant holes in the plot or unexplained character actions. Bad dialogue, to me, is as bad as a leaky roof, because it’s pretty hard to put a book together and not have two characters talk to each other. Even though books get edited, I need to see some effort and polish in a submission. Good fundamentals aren’t negotiable.
I can and do edit client manuscripts before sending them to publishers, and I look at this like working on the interior of a house. I take on a manuscript when I see that it’s the equivalent of a house in generally good working order. My idea of editing is sort of like interior decorating. I can work with the author and we can give their “house” a new paint job, or rearrange the furniture, or do some landscaping, or even knock out a wall. We can take something that’s good and give it a wow factor. But none of these changes can be made to a work that doesn’t have an unshakeable structure.