Authors > Articles > Rejection
Reasons Why Editors Reject Manuscripts
by Vicki Hinze
Once per year for the last seven or eight years, I've surveyed a number of editors from large publishing houses, small presses, and a group of small and large literary agents in various genres, trying to get a good cross-section of responses so that writers could get a firm grip of what's going on in the industry. What I'm about to share with you are the reasons these industry professionals cited that they most often reject manuscripts. I've included insights I've learned along the way on how to rid your work of those infractions or troublespots. Hopefully, by identifying the challenges and sharing how to correct them in your work, each of you will get fewer rejection letters.
I've broken the responses down in groups so that we can deal with them efficiently--and I hope sufficiently.
1. CONTENT. Across the board, editors and agents are still getting manuscripts that they can't possibly buy.
For example: Sending a category romance to a publisher that publishes only single title or mainstream novels. Or sending a single title or mainstream novel to a house that publishes only category romances.
As well as inappropriate classifications, some authors send mysteries to houses that publish only romance novels, or science fiction to publishers/agents who handle only fantasy. An example that narrows the extent of this challenge is homing in on novel focus. Such as, a writer submitting an erotica novel to publishers such as Avalon, who publishes "sweet" romances.
Content goes beyond these obvious classifications. The only way an author can truly tell whether or not his or her work fits with a specific publisher--and then with a specific editor at a specific publisher--is to read the books that the targeted publisher publishes.
A writer can get a general idea of what types of novels do well for a given publisher via word of mouth (from booksellers, librarians), the publisher's guidelines, the publisher's reputation among writers, and through talking/meeting with editors/agents at conferences, but nothing gives the writer insight like reading the books.
Most publishers have active websites that list the books they're publishing. Review the list, talk with other authors, investigate to see what success the publisher is having at publishing its books, and then read the actual books. There, you will gain the greatest insight possible.
What the writer ultimately wants to discover is a house that publishes books which are compatible with the writer's books. The writer doesn't want a house that is already publishing the same thing. S/he wants a publisher who is publishing something similar.
Example: When I was writing contemporary, military-themed romantic suspense and I shopped for a new publisher, I didn't want to approach a publisher already publishing contemporary, military-themed romantic suspense. I'd be asking a publisher to publish books wherein it is competing with all the other publishers and with itself. That publisher is going to want to build the author writing these who is already contracted.
But let's say I wrote historical, military-themed romantic suspense. The house is open to military-themed romantic suspense--it's already publishing contemporary versions of it--and currently it doesn't have an author writing historical military-themed romantic suspense.
In that case, a publisher who wouldn't have been a submission candidate now is a submission candidate.
So when it comes to content, an editor is more apt to be interested in a book that is compatible with his/her current list, but not in direct competition to it. As a writer, that's the niche you're looking to fill. The same and yet different. Your unique niche.
Study the content of the books currently being published by a house and determine the editor with whom you see the greatest potential for success.
Regarding Agents: While only an agent determines his/her clients, they do typically specialize in areas of interest and expertise. Many, for example, don't start out intending to handle only women's fiction. Yet their personal interests and tastes and the clients they already represent do influence an agent who is choosing what clients to add to their list.
Some agents focus on one type of fiction. Others are more expansive in their tastes and preferences. It's important to the writer to determine those preferences and normal tendencies of an agent. Sometimes agents at larger agencies are less restrictive in what they'll handle.
The rationale is simple, if you think about it. No one can be an expert at everything. But an agent operating with a group of agents can rely on their own expertise and that of his/her fellow agents. That can be a whale of an asset if a writer writes in multiple genres.
Ultimately, the writer wants an agent with a firm grip on his/her market who has contacts and is familiar with the tastes of the editors in his/her market. An agent who has the skills necessary to determine who is the right editor and the best possible publisher for the writer's work.
2. CONTEXT. Either the plot or the characters are not suitable for the publisher's established reader base.
Extreme example: A writer submits erotica to a regional publisher in the Bible belt, where the majority of the publisher's readers don't buy erotica. So even if the editor wanted to buy the novel, s/he must reject it because the publisher can't sell it.
Remember: Editors buy books they love and can sell to their identified reader base.
Context infractions cover a multitude of sins, but the key point is that in some fashion, the editor feels that the work won't be of interest to or acceptable to the readers it has identified for a specific type of book.
This can apply to books that cross genres also. So if you write a novel that incorporates strong aspects of multiple genres, then realize that it could take longer to sell because it doesn't clearly fit on one specific place on the bookstore's shelves. This type of novel definitely carries higher risks for the author and the publisher, so if you make the decision to write cross-genre or multiple-genre books, understand the risks are higher.
Also, realize a publisher might have an excellent track record at selling romantic suspense, but a lousy record at selling mystery or straight suspense. Obviously, you want match up what you're good at writing with what a publisher is good at selling.
These things require the writer to do homework--and s/he should be delighted to do it.
As writers, we write for the joy of it and we recognize writing as a gift and an art. But the moment we choose to sell what we've written, we leave the artistic realm and enter the commercial fiction zone.
In the zone, we have one objective and that is selling our work. To do that successfully, we have the responsibility of understanding how our industry works.
Now many writers groan about that. They just want to write their books. They ignore the business aspect of the business. And often they get burned or they suffer setback upon setback because they haven't invested in learning how things work. They also suffer undue anxiety about normal and typical events that happen during the production stage because they have no idea what to expect.
My personal position is this: Many years ago, I developed a personal policy to write only books I love. I felt that was important. (The rest of the world could hate my books; I'd love them.) Well, I still feel that was a good decision. I invest my time and energy into writing a book. My time and energy are my life. That's definitely important! When it comes time to sell my book, I'm sure not going to dump it just anywhere. I'm going to invest in that aspect, too, because I want to do all I can to make certain I've got the best possible publishing partner. That best serves my work. And best serving my work best serves me in honoring my life and my gift.
The third most frequently cited category in the reasons for rejection is:
3. MECHANICAL and/or TECHNICAL CHALLENGES. These are good news to the writer because they don't involve that spark of magic in writing that can't be taught. Mechanical and technical challenges are ones that we writers can learn and their infractions are ones we can fix or eliminate from our work.
Let's look first at the Mechanical Challenges cited.
Passive voice. Write in an active voice. So that what is happening in the story is happening now in the reader's mind. Show, don't tell. Often writers create what is called psychic distance in their books, and more often than not the way writers create it is through author intrusion.
Let's explore the process.
As writers we're charged with the responsibility of drawing the reader in, making him care about the character and identify with the characters. To do that, we must create and maintain the fictional dream. There's an article on that on the website in the Writers' Aids section, but let me say here that it is through the fictional dream that a reader is transported from reading words on a page to living the events of the novel.
The reader is an armchair adventurer, but through the fictional dream, s/he becomes an active participant in the story--through the characters' senses. Now if the author intrudes and places herself between the reader and character, then the reader isn't experiencing the story firsthand. She is being told a story.
To close that psychic distance gap and plant the reader inside the character's head, you have to go through your work and ditch the filters that create the distance.
Some watchwords are: thought, wondered, considered, hoped, realized.
Do your best to delete all of them. The rule of thumb is to ditch them. If you sacrifice clarity by ditching them, then let them stay in the book. They've earned their space. Otherwise, they're out of there.
Example: She realized she'd reached the point of no return. She had to kill him.
She realized is a filter. The author telling the reader what the character is thinking. See the psychic distance? How what is occurring in the novel is filtered from the character, through the writer, and then to the reader?
Revise it, and let the character think for herself.
The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill him.
Now, without the filter, you have no psychic distance between the reader and character. You've closed the gap and the reader is inside the character's head.
Autonomous body parts. This infraction is a mechanical pet peeve as annoying as a buzzing mosquito. To rid it from your work, all you must do is remember that parts of a character's body cannot act independently.
My favorite example is one many of you have heard on various occasions.
Her eyes fell to her plate.
Now you want to create a vivid image, but unless you're writing horror and you want the reader to "see" eyeballs popping out of someone's head and landing in their plate, you need to revise this to eliminate the autonomous body part.
She lowered her gaze to her plate.
This sounds like a trivial infraction, but its impact is not trivial, it's significant. Again, check out the process.
When the reader reads: Her eyes fell to her plate, she automatically envisions that happening literally. She has to stop, look at the sentence in context, deduce and intuit that the writer really meant the character lowered her gaze.
Readers are clever and they can figure this out, but because they have to stop and use deductive reasoning to intuit the true meaning, you (the writer) have broken the fictional dream. You've reminded the reader that she isn't living the events, she isn't the character, and that she hasn't been transported anywhere. She's sitting in her recliner, trying to participate in a fictional dream but you keep waking her up!
Intrude too often, and the reader puts the book down and doesn't pick it back up. That's not trivial. It's significant.
It's unlikely the reader will identify a broken fictional dream as the reason s/he doesn't like a book, but s/he'll give telling clues. "I just couldn't get into the book. I didn't care for the character." Or s/he will say something like: "You know, I started that book fifty times, but I just never finished it."
Cause before effect, reaction before action, syntax error. All of these are essentially the same infraction. It's important to remember that whatever a reader reads first on the page is what happens first in the reader's mind. So when you're writing, make sure you write the action first and follow it with the reaction.
Example: Fear streaked up his spine when the snake hissed.
In this case, the snake's hiss is the action. The character's fear is a reaction to the snake's hiss.
So to correct this, you'd simply reverse the phrases. He hears the snake hiss--the action--and then he feels fear--the reaction.
A simple thing and easy to fix, as are most of these mechanical/technical challenges. But things that significantly impact the work.
Frequent use of Names in Dialogue. Dialogue is supposed to imitate real life conversation, but it is different. A lot of what is said in real conversation is omitted in dialogue because it's useless chatter that hasn't earned its space in a book.
Still, dialogue must ring true to the ear, must emulate real conversation. And when engaged in real conversation we don't often use each other's names.
Writers often include names to make it clear to the reader who is talking. But we can use others skills to accomplish that without relying heavily on the too frequent use of names.
We can give each character a distinctive voice. A distinct-to-the-character phrase, or the rhythm of the way a character talks can make it evident who is speaking. Remember, verbiage, level of formality, as well as the level of discretion and acceptable topics all acts as unique evidence of individual character traits. For example: a Wall Street stockbroker "sounds" different from a Texas rancher.
We can use action tags. Action tags are wonderful tools that do double duty. Let's say you have two characters chatting. The goal is information sharing. One character is planting seedlings in a garden. The other is drinking a glass of lemonade. By having the character shovel the dirt, pat it, water the seedling, you make it clear to the reader s/he is the character talking without using a name. The other character can run a finger down the chilled glass. Crunch down on a cube of ice. So action tags make it clear who is talking and give the illusion of action and help anchor the scene (that will become significant momentarily, since it too was cited by the editors/agents). Double duty.
Avoid figure, frame, and presence. I had hoped we'd be beyond this one, but obviously, by its high placement in the survey results, editors and agents are still seeing it.
Example: Don't write: He leaned his massive frame against the door.
Do write: He leaned against the door.
To drive the point home on why you shouldn't use figure, frame or presence when you mean a body, let me ask you a simple question. When was a the last time you saw a gorgeous person and thought, "Wow, what a nice frame?"
Separate actions. When you have a character doing a series of actions, avoid having them do the physically impossible simultaneously. "And" is a wicked abuser on this type infraction.
Example: She called 911, went to the car, and drove to the hospital.
A character simply cannot do all three simultaneously.
If the phone is a cell phone, she can do two of three at once. But she can't "go" to the car and being driving to the hospital at the same time. To correct this, remove the simultaneous "and" then insert the sequential "then."
She called 911, went to the car, then drove to the hospital.
Now, she isn't doing the physically impossible. Again, this is a small infraction, but one that requires the reader to stop and deduce the writer's true meaning. It again broke the fictional dream.
Keep items in a series parallel. Make sure your subjects, verbs, and syntax agree. If your character is walking, he's chewing gum. If he walks, he chews gum. If you use walk, then use chew. Keep the tenses parallel.
Ellipsis. The series of dots. Please be judicious in using the ellipsis. Otherwise, when you reach a point in your work that would really benefit from it, the ellipsis will be too weakened to carry any weight.
Understand the emotional impact of punctuation.
When you're reading and you come to a comma, you pause. At a semicolon, you pause a tad longer. A colon, little longer. At a dash, you prepare for an interrupted thought. At a period, you stop.
An ellipsis carries a SERIES of PERIODS--three or four depending on the sentence and publisher's preference. (Technically, a complete sentence gets four; an incomplete one gets three, but some publishers use three regardless.) A series of periods is a lot of stopping. It's also visually disruptive to the reader.
Lots of stops and visual interruptions "awaken" the reader from the fictional dream. That's counterproductive to the writer's goal, which is to establish and maintain that fictional dream from the beginning to the end of the book. Offer the reader too many opportunities to stop or too many interruptions and s/he puts the book down and doesn't pick it back up.
These are the "technical" reasons most frequently leading to rejection cited by the editors and agents:
Unheroic Character Behavior. Hands down, this challenge topped the list of cited technical reasons for rejection. (It has for several years.)
Writers need to remember that protagonists are not like us. They're like the people we want to be. Admirable, honorable, considerate, strong, and they aspire to worthy goals. Protagonists have all these positive attributes, and it shows--in their thoughts, actions and in their deeds.
The best thing a writer can do to eliminate these challenges from her work is to respect her characters. Villains, too. I want to caution you to give your villains redeeming qualities.
Apparently, from comments on the survey, this is still a common problem. (There's an article on villains in my library.)
Remember that no one, not even a psychotic, considers himself a bad person. So when you're in a character's point of view, be mindful of that. S/he feels just, rational, logical, and maybe even noble or saintly in what s/he is doing--even if it's twisted and crazy to the rest of us.
Often, writers develop villains who are pure evil. Understand that this diminishes the villain's capacity to act. The hero and the reader know what to expect from such a villain--the worse he's capable of inflicting--so doubt is diminished and suspense along with it.
Understand, too, that when you make a villain weak, you also weaken your hero. He might be strong, have all the admirable traits and things we readers admire and want in a hero, but we'll never know it because he doesn't have a means to show it in the story. If the hero acts heroic against a weak villain, the writer risks having the hero come across as a bully beating up on a wimp. The result?
You have a weakened villain, a weakened hero, and that means you have to come up with a weaker (less complex and critical) plot because the characters lack the strength to carry a weighty, complex plot.
To make this clear, think of the novel as a rope bridge. The hero and villains are ropes. If they're strong, tied securely (meaning well-motivated), then that bridge (novel) can carry a lot of weight. That means, a lot of plot, a lot of serious conflicts, a lot of obstacles of consequence.
If either rope is frayed, worn, or weak, then the other rope must carry its own weight and take up the weak rope's slack. That means, you can't put as much weight on the bridge; it can't support it. So you use lesser conflicts and obstacles and that makes for less complex plots.
But if the ropes (the hero and villain) are strong, competent, capable, and skilled, and well-motivated, then that bridge (novel) can carry a lot of weight (complex novel elements). The bridge (novel) has the support (strong characters) to carry all the weight (complex novel elements/events) the writer wants to toss onto it. Heavy obstacles, substantial conflicts and plots that require a lot from the characters--physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They have the ability to carry it all--anything you want to throw at them--and that gives the writer more options, more flexibility when it comes to events and possibilities.
With strong characters and a meaty plot, you've also increased interest, intensity, and suspense, because now the outcome is in doubt. What will happen is in doubt. Who will win? What sacrifices will be made to win? What obstacles must be confronted and conquered can be far more extensive and complex . . . and uncertain.
An Example of Unheroic Character Behavior: In a romance novel I reviewed, there was a 17-year-old heroine. (I had a problem with an underage heroine in a romance novel. It's atypical coming out of the gate.) She was a drug user (also atypical; had a problem with that, too) who had been orphaned and was being raised by her older sister.
In the first three pages of the novel, the heroine was skipping school, drunk at nine in the morning, and having sex in a car with a guy that fit the bill as "every mother's nightmare." I had trouble with all of that. This heroine isn't the kind of person romance readers typically admire or relate to, which means the readers wouldn't identify with the heroine (makes empathy impossible), and she isn't the type of heroine typically found in a romance novel (which makes rejection odds rest at about 99.9%).
It's important to know what's normal, when it comes to your characters in a specific type of book, and to understand that when you veer from that normal, you're increasing the risks of rejection.
Talking heads. This is actually Anchoring Scenes, and we see it on the survey year after year, so it's significant.
Talking heads is an acronym for a scene where two characters are engaged in a conversation but the author has failed to anchor these characters in the scene by relaying to the reader details that signal where the characters are or what they're doing. So to correct it, the writer needs to insert scene anchors. Scene anchors are easy to incorporate. Select specific, concrete details that create vivid images in the reader's mind. Remember, not just any details.
The details the writer chooses should be ones that mirror or echo the point of view character's current emotional mood.
Example: Your scene occurs at a lake. The point of view character is a man whose son just died. What details does he note?
Details that are dark and gloomy--intense details that carry the sense of his emotional mood: grief, loss, sorry, and despair.
Maybe he sees dark, murky shadows in the water. Wisteria vines choking the twisted trunk of an ancient oak. A slate gray sky. Thunderheads. Weeds bending under the weight of a frigid wind.
Change the mood of the character, and the writer should change the details.
(Pause a moment and answer these questions. That will help you see the significance of this technical challenge.)
- What would a kid who has just learned to ride a bike no hands see and sense?
- What would a woman who had just been told she was loved by the man she loves see and sense?
- What if that woman is already married--to someone else? What details would she see and sense then? Would they differ from the details in the previous question?
Mirror or echo the current point of view character's emotional mood and anchor the scenes so the reader visualizes and senses where the character is and what the character is doing.
Like most writers, I read all over the board. On occasion I run into a book or an author who handles a particular skill with genius and mastery. George R. R. Martin is a genius and a master at creating and maintaining the fictional dream. (You might recall that he did the TV series, Beauty and the Beast.)
If you haven't read his Fire & Ice trilogy, I recommend you read it. The Clash of Kings, A Storm of Thrones, and A Clash of Thrones. His handling of the fictional dream makes these works worth studying. I'll warn you now to read them once for the joy of it--because you'll get caught up in the story and not remember to watch for how he creates that dream or maintains it. So read for pleasure, then reread with a highlighter in your hand to see how he does it.
If your experience mirrors mine, you'll learn more from studying this work than from studying tons of textbooks on the topic.
Vicki Hinze © 2001
Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at national writers' conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Visit her website at: www.vickihinze.com