Rejections hurt. And all writers get them. But you can reduce the number.
by Anne R. Allen
I’ve been perusing some agent sites recently to see if their advice has changed since I was on the query-go-round a couple of decades ago.
But things seem to have remained much the same.
The top reasons for rejections of the query letter itself are perennial:
- Mass querying. (Those auto-reject, whether you’re querying agents, reviewers, or bloggers.)
- Writing to “To Whom it May Concern” or getting the agent’s name or gender wrong.
- Querying by a third party. This can mean either a query service (total waste of money!) or a spouse, child, or parent.
- Querying more than one book. (I used to do that. That was like writing my own rejections.)
- Talking about yourself instead of the book.
- Querying agents who don’t rep your genre.
Or the agent is having a bad day. Or the intern is on vacation. Whatever. We expect our queries to get a few rejections.
But when you’ve passed the first query test and they ask for a partial or even a full manuscript of your novel, our hopes go through the roof. Only to be dashed when the rejections come—often with no explanation except that the book is “not right for us at this time.”
What “not right for us at this time” often means is that your book has one or more of the following problems.
Readers notice these problems too, all you indie authors. Indies have to pay attention to this stuff, too.
1) Inauthentic Voice
Agents say they see a lot of manuscripts with an inappropriate voice for the genre or time period.
This is especially true in YA and MG books. A believable teen/tween voice can be tough to do if you don’t have a handy teen/tween to listen to every day.
But voice can also hit a false note in adult fiction. A pretentious voice turns people off. And an overly chatty one can make your character sound like a dingbat.
Faux-folksy can be off the mark too. Beware dialects and accents, even if they’re your own. They can seem stagey. They’re also hard to read. A lot of agents give a pass to anything written in dialect.
2) Too Many or Too Few Scenes.
Many newbie novels have either too few or not enough scenes. If you have too few, you have the old telling vs. showing problem. If the author tells the reader about what happened rather than taking us into the scene and letting us feel and hear what’s going on, it’s not a novel. It’s storytelling. A fine art, but not what you want in your manuscript.
On the other hand, some new writers tend to write everything in scenes, like a screenplay (this is what I did when I started.) If most of your story happens in dialogue, you need to do a little more telling and a little less showing.
For more on this, check out my post on “Do Your Characters Talk too Much?”
3) Too Many Characters
This has always been my problem. I love a cast of thousands. I want to give a backstory to every walk-on character from the meter maid to the pizza delivery guy. Probably because of my years in the theater, where we always heard, “There are no small parts. Only small actors.”
Unfortunately, big actors aside, readers don’t want to get emotionally involved with a character they’re never going to see again. I’ve learned that I need to do radical pruning before I let anybody see the manuscript. If the story is too crowded to follow, readers won’t finish and won’t be back.
4) Unsympathetic or Underdeveloped Characters.
“Unsympathetic” is a relative term, I know. A lot of things can make a perfectly “nice” character unsympathetic. In fact perfection often makes readers hate a character. (See my post on “Mary Sue”.) Other things that make a character unsympathetic are whining, passivity, lack of empathy, and self-destructiveness.
But in the era of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, we’ve stretched the definition of “sympathetic.” I’m planning a whole blogpost about this for later in the year.
And no matter how great your plot, wooden, stereotyped, or underdeveloped characters can ruin your story. So if your characters don’t feel like real flesh and blood people to you, write them a bio or interview them. Give them some backstory only you have to know about. But you need to give them motivation to do the things you make them do.
5) Inappropriate Language.
Language needs to be appropriate to the genre, period, and age group. One of the main peeves agents talk about about is characters in YA who speak like adults. Or use slang of a generation or two ago in a contemporary setting. And worst of all, historical novels where young people say “whatever” and “like, totally.”
And be very careful with dialects and accents, as I mentioned above. Change spelling as little as possible. And always get a beta-read from somebody who actually speaks that language or dialect. I will always be grateful to Irish humorist Tara Sparling for “weeding out the shamrocks” from the dialogue of reluctant Irish gigolo Conor McDara in the Queen of Staves. (It’s on sale! See below.)
As for swearing and vulgarities–they’re fine in some genres and a no-no in others. Cozies generally have squeaky clean language. Sweet romances, too. But no book should have gratuitous foul language. Make sure the language is appropriate to the character and the setting. Just throwing in stuff for shock value only turns off the reader.
I know it was a popular TV series, but I could never get into the show Deadwood because every single character from the bad hombres to the schoolmarm used an “F” bomb in every sentence. Bombs are powerful. Save them for the right person and situation.
6) Clumsy World-Building
Too much world-building can feel like studying a history book. Yes, I know Tolkien got away with it, but that was 80 years ago. You don’t have to spend all that time telling us why the cities of the green elves are so different from those of the pink elves as your hero passes through them on the road to Mount Gloom. Just give us the highlights.
On the other hand, lack of world-building leaves your reader completely in the dark.
For a great post on how to get your world building right, see fantasy author Will Hahn’s excellent world-building post.
7) Pacing Issues
This is probably the hardest thing for a new novelist to get right. If you’ve got an outline, make sure it adheres to the three-act structure.
If you’re a pantser, your first job in editing should be to map out the book and make sure it fits into that structure. Some authors find it helps to use index cards laid out on a board. I understand Scrivener has a tool that does this for you.
The old saw is that in Act 1, you get a guy up a tree, in Act 2, you throw rocks at him, and in Act 3, you bring him down again.
What happens in a lot of newbie novels is we spend way too much time getting the guy up the tree, and not enough time getting him down again. But if you divide the ms. into three parts, you can see where you need to speed up or slow down.
Introspection is a great way to put on the brakes. So is attention to detail.
If you’re in the middle of a battle scene, you don’t want your characters waxing poetic about the color of the periwinkles in the meadow, or having a flashback to that time she and her family had a picnic in a spot very like this…
On the other hand, when you want to slow down and savor the moment, do give us the welcome details about how her lover’s eyes are the color of periwinkles and how she wants to picnic with him in that idyllic spot because, family picnic…
8) And the Most Common Cause of Rejections of a Full Novel Ms: Plot Issues
These happen when the reader is ambling along with your nice village cozy, and suddenly aliens land on the roof of the quaint B & B. Maybe accompanied by Bonnie Prince Charlie and Amelia Earhart. Don’t try this stuff unless you’re writing satire. And/or you’re the reincarnation of Douglas Adams.
Sometimes the author loses the plot entirely. Literally. They might have lots of great characters and settings, but tension? Totally AWOL. Scene after scene leads nowhere. Remember every scene needs to move the story forward. Have a great scene that doesn’t do that? Save it. Maybe you can expand it into a short story you can use as a freebie to promote the book.
Remember that even though you are in love with all the fun banter, cute character quirks and gorgeous descriptions, the reader is there for the story. Once you drop the ball on story, your reader is gone, girl.
And then there are plot holes. Never-explained solutions to problems. The subplot that got dropped in chapter 15. The character that disappeared after that first date. Ruth Harris wrote a great post on how to fix those plot holes.
Of course, your manuscript may be getting rejections for a lot of reasons that are totally out of your control. Rejections may have nothing to do with your manuscript or you. For an inside look at why a publishing house may be sending out rejections, here’s Ruth’s insider’s look at 10 REAL Reasons Your Book was Rejected.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) July 21, 2019
What about you, scriveners? Does your WIP have issues in any of these categories? Which category is your own biggest challenge when writing fiction?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
After giving a band a mediocre review, music blogger Ronzo Zolek’s life is destroyed by the vindictive band leader, Mack Rattlebag. The death threats, doxing and accusations of unspeakable crimes lead Ronzo to fake his own death. His only refuge is a California homeless camp. He tries to keep his relationship with Camilla secret, so Rattlebag doesn’t target Camilla as well.
Rattlebag has more nasty plans in store, but Ronzo has a secret weapon: his ability to read Tarot, handed down from his Roma great aunt.
It’s #6 in the series, but can be read as a stand-alone
“A pure delight to read! Chock full of interesting characters, mystery, and humor that just won’t stop (“Never ask a favor of a Capricorn. They have spreadsheets where their heart should be…”), this page-turning stand-alone novel offers readers eccentric characters…and a tarot-infused story that moves effortlessly through 66 chapters, each chapter opening with a picture from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck.
Themes from the famous deck resonate throughout the story, weaving its way into dialogue, storyline, and character (including a handyman-turned-tarot-reader), even setting as evidenced in the description of a home of a tarot client that resembles the fortress on the Tower card (complete with a rocky cliff and the dangers it brings). I found the Wheel of Fortune to be the perfect card to bring closure to the novel.”….Julie Valerie
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Red Hen Press Novella Award. A prize of $1,000 and publication by the prestigious Red Hen Press is given annually for a novella. Doug Lawson will judge. 15,000 to 30,000 words. $25 entry fee by July 31.
Stories That Need to Be Told Contest from TulipTree Publishing. $1,000 prize for a poem, short story, or essay that “tells a story.” The winner also gets publication in the contest anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told. Plus a 2 year subscription to Duotrope. Submit a poem, a story, or an essay of up to 10,000 words with a $20 entry fee by August 15.
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33 Romance Publishers that don’t require an agent. Not going the self-publishing route? There’s still a way to get published without an agent.
7 PUBLISHERS FOR MEMOIRS! You don’t need an agent. From the good folks at Authors Publish.