Let’s imagine that all manuscripts fall into three piles.
The largest pile is the stuff agents have no qualms about rejecting. These are the queries, partials, fulls that are obviously not ready for publication. They have issues for many reasons: writing isn’t at marketable quality, plot is flat or overcomplicated or unoriginal, dialogue is unnatural, cannot connect with the characters, voice isn’t unique, grammar shows the ms hasn’t seen an edit.
The smallest pile is the stuff agents sign, the stuff editors gobble up, the things you see on bookstore shelves and on the best seller list. As many books as there seem to be out there in print, this pile compared to the first pile, is tiny. This is the stuff I lose sleep over when I come across it in the slush pile.
It’s the third pile, the Middle Pile, that is the most difficult. Some manuscripts come to us and they are not horrible, but nor do they stand above the rest with a blinking neon sign that reads AWESOME. Your writing is good, voice is relatable, dialogue is natural, plot is probably unique, grammar is tight. Signs that your ms is in this third pile include getting your full ms requested but ultimately rejected.
So why is your manuscript getting rejected if it falls into the third pile? It might be that you haven’t found the right agent for it. Many times, it’s a matter of finding the one agent who will work with you on the ms to bring from pile three to the land of AWESOME.
But, that might never happen. So you’re looking at another revision. Sadly, agents cannot give feedback on everything they read (it’ll happen, but not often). If you have racked up a few rejections on your partial or full, write down all the advice the agents did give you. Hopefully this is enough to let you know where to head next. If you’ve gotten no feedback (perhaps they gave you hope like “good writing,” or “unique plot,” or “amazing characters”) then it might be time to ask for help (critique groups, contests with edits as prizes, professional editors, conferences).
The biggest thing to remember when you’re in this third elusive pile: don’t despair. You’re doing something right. But writing is hard work–and nothing worth doing is ever easy. So keep working at it. The beauty of being in a business like this is that everyone here is here because they love it–you have support and the resources. Put them, and your passion, to good use.