Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reasons for Rejection

As you may know, I’ve begun the dreaded query process. If you haven’t heard of my latest foibles, check out yesterday’s post on my blog, because I just can’t bear to admit it “out loud” one more time. I expect I will be flooded with rejections soon, so I decided to look up the reasons most agents reject a query.

My first query went out to Kathleen Ortiz of Lowenstein Associates, after a contest on authorsavvy.com where she requested my material. Since I sent it to her first, I thought I would check out her reasons for rejections (no response yet, by the way).

  1. Word count. In the YA world, if the word cont is over 100,000 words, it’s too high. For reasons why, check out Querytracker.com for the lowdown. Conversely, if the word count is too low (30,000 words) it is too low and needs to be fleshed out.
  1. Voice. If it doesn’t have the basics: originality, authority, authenticity, it just isn’t going to grab their attention, and hold it for the duration of the novel. For more on this topic, check out my previous post here.
  1. Backstory. You shouldn’t have fifty pages of the boring; start the novel with the turning point in the character’s life.
  1. Show, don’t tell (I felt mad, I felt sad, I felt happy). Don’t do it. We all know how easy it is to fall into the telling trap, because showing takes A LOT of work.
  1. It’s too complicated. If there is too much action in the beginning, to the point where it’s impossible to follow who the characters are, and who’s doing what, it just gets confusing.
  1. Not following instructions. If she asks for a query letter, 2 page synopsis and the first ten pages of the manuscript – do it, for goodness sake! Don’t assume you can ignore the rules; otherwise you’ll just appear arrogant.
  1. Too many cliché’s. If you rely on stock characters (happy hooker, busty blond bombshell, evil billionaire, your ms is going straight into the slushpile – and fast!)
  1. The first pages are awesome, but then the rest falls apart. So many websites out there right now provide first pages critiques, but the truth is, if the rest of the manuscript sucks, it won’t help anyway.
Here are a few of my personal notes from the Surrey International Writer’s Conference - Idol workshop in 2009:

  1. It just isn’t authentic. If you have a vampire in your novel these days, it had better be pretty unique (hint – no sparkly, self-loathing, brooding vampires with the name Edward).
  1. It’s too boring. Don’t make your opening characters stagnant, you have to grab the reader from the first sentence.
  1. No reason to care about the character. There needs to be something special or unique about the character, otherwise, why would a reader care?
  1. Head-hopping. You get one POV per scene. That’s it.
  1. Graphic violence, profanity and explicit sex from the get-go. Don’t rely on the shock factor to hook a reader. Not that these things need to be excluded altogether, but you need to earn their respect before you go there.
  1. There’s a morality lesson or message. This can be insulting to a reader and be the number one reason for them to put the book down.
  1. The writer has an attitude about literary agents and expresses it. Be professional. Don’t assume a literary agent is cruel and insensitive. They are people too, with feelings, so treat them with respect.
  1. The pacing is off. Does dialogue make it move too quickly? Does description slow it down?
  1. The writer is a stalker – follow your favorite agents on twitter, read their blogs, but don’t repeatedly re-query them, or ask for feedback or generally annoy them.
After reviewing the above list, I’m curious what will be the reason(s) for my rejection. The best I can hope for is a request for a partial, and the worst, a form letter. Maybe I’ll get something in the middle, perhaps a personalized letter with some short feedback on why it was rejected.
Have you ever received a rejection that explained why your ms didn’t make the cut? Did it involve one of these seventeen reasons?


Helena said...

What a great survey of this painful part of a writer's world! You have distilled the advice we have all seen for writing the best manuscript into a checklist of "oops, you forgot to follow the rules, and this is the penalty."

I have never received a rejection with an explanation or suggestions for making it better. My experience is rather limited; I have only submitted short stories, short non-fiction, and poetry. Some have been selected, but many more have not. I don't have a manuscript of a novel ready yet, so that angst is still ahead for me.

When the time comes, I will be sure to hearken back to your wonderful roundup of reasons that I might examine when it winds its weary way back to me as a rejection.

Great post, Joanne. And my fingers are crossed for you!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
Welcome to the the wonderful world of rejection! Unfortunately, it comes with the territory.

I sat in on the Idol competition at the Surrey conference last fall too, and I was pretty amazed at the swiftness with which the agents made their decisions about passing on a manuscript. I think there were one or two manuscripts out of all those read that the agents expressed interest in. These were experienced agents and they know from the first few sentences if they wanted to hear more or if they'd give the manuscript a pass. Their reasons were varied and as you laid them out. But often I got the impression it came down to a gut feeling. If they couldn't connect with the story from the beginning, they knew they could represent it, and knew they couldn't sell it.

I have on occassion received rejections with some explanation. The worst is a form letter that tells you nothing.

Best of luck with your querying.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Helena,
You're right about the "painful part of a writer's world". Even though we know it comes with the territory, it still stings when it happens.

Joanne Brothwell said...

My impression from Idol was the same - it seemed like sometimes it was just a subjective gut feeling that they had to put words to.

Janet said...

Hey, Joanne - read this first thing this morning and obviously forgot to comment. Probably because I was having flashbacks to my rejection letters and I went into denial!

All of my rejections, including those for partials, have been form. I'd like to think I would prefer personal, but maybe I'm not ready to hear the reasons they stopped reading (I, too, sat in on Idol and I'm sure my jaw was on the ground with the stark realization that most agents stop so quickly).

I always say I just one someone to say exactly why - then I can move on (make changes, decide on another career) - but that could be worse than the form where I end up guessing why (my guesses include a lot of your reasons).

All you can do is just keep going! Excuse me while I say that over and over to myself...

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hey Janet,
You're right, all you can do is keep going because guessing is an exercise in futility!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Joanne, good for you for getting it out.

Here is my reject history:

1 - Form Rejection:(3 chapters) not quite suitable for their line (thanks for the look and good luck with the project)

2 - Good Rejection:(3 chapters)writing was choppy in parts; the H/h must spend most of the story together but I have them separated for a month. (good luck submitting elsewhere, but please submit something else to us.)

3 - Non-Acceptance Rejection (3 chapters) this isn't a rejection, but it's the next step. Here's the one I rec'd: I enjoyed your voice and you have the technical aspects down, which makes the reading easy and fluid. Unfortunately there were areas of the manuscript that caused me concerns and prevent me from going further with the story at this moment. I’ve attached the first ten pages or so of your manuscript with my notes in track changes to help you understand where the issues present themselves. Most involve detail consistency and characterization...Simply you need to make it make sense, be realistic and believable. To do this, you need to build certain areas up a bit more, tighten others, add more descriptive and sensory details and make sure you keep the characters true to themselves and their genders. My notes give more explanation in the specific areas including notes on pacing...Anita, I do believe you have potential and hope that you will revise based on my notes—keeping in mind that the remainder of your ms would also have to be looked at closely for instances of the same issues to correct...Should you decide to revise Marry Me, Ma’am or you have another story involving contemporary cowboys, I would love to consider your work again.

Now, the only reason I quoted that for you is to show you a lot can be wrong with your ms but if they like your story, they're willing to work with you. And yes, the last one is as good as it gets and I have to get to work on it. It came back while I was working on Emma's Outlaw and the editor knows I'll get to it when I finish this one. That doesn't sound good, but that's the way it is.

So Joanne, those are my only rejections so far and they are for 3 different books with 2 publishers/3 editors.

If you noticed, the rejections start itty and expand. The longer, the better.

Excellent post.