I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink. It's a fast read about how we make decisions in the blink of an eye. Gladwell calls it thin-slicing.
When we come in contact with something—a book, a painting, an idea—we bring subconscious knowledge to that very first second and on some level, we come to a conclusion.
Most of the time, we dig for more information. It's rational. Gladwell shows that sometimes we know in that very first second what the what is. Thin slicing is not intuition, but real thinking that takes place real fast.
Sport makes for a great example. A running back makes thousands of decisions as he runs down the field. He's thinking, "Cut or duck—that guy's huge. Cut. Quick."
Tiger Woods tweaks his ankle and sinks the putt. Is he aware of his ankle adjustment? Doubt it.
You're in a bookstore and you slide a book off the shelf. You glance at the cover and scan the blurb and then you read the first line. A decision has formed. You might ask the clerks their opinions, but you already have an idea in place.
Writers make these snap, subconscious decisions as they are typing. The über critic makes this naturally more difficult. But in the end, can you tweak your subconscious?
Editors and agents plow through tons of material every day. Without thin-slicing, they would never get through the pile.
I wonder if the accepted stories have something upfront and deliciously subconscious that clicks in the agent's mind and makes her say, "I can sell this."