Aug 05 2010

16 Reasons Your Manuscript Got Rejected Before Page 1

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Publishers and literary agents reject quite a few manuscripts on page 1.  However, if the query letter is bad, the editor will probably reject you without even looking at page 1.  Here are some common problems and how to avoid them.

1.  “This is just like Harry Potter meets Dirty Harry.” Comparing your work to another will probably make your work sound like an uninspired ripoff.  Also, you can’t assume that the editor likes Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Spiderman, or whatever else you might think is the most awesome work ever.  Instead of trying to hitch a ride on somebody else’s bandwagon, talk about your work.  If editors think “this will totally work with Harry Potter fans,” great, but let them make that determination on their own.

 

2.  The description of the plot/characters lacked details. “Gary must work with his partner to stop the villain and save the day.”  What are Gary and the partner like?  What’s the villain like? What’s the villain’s goal? Why should we care if they stop him?  A more detailed description is usually more interesting.  If I had to describe The Taxman Must Die in a single sentence, I’d prefer something like “Two unlikely Homeland Security super-agents, an accountant and a fun-loving mutant alligator, must band together to prevent a deranged cosmeticist from destroying humanity.”  See more details on how to write an interesting and exciting pitch for your story here.

2.1  You forgot to mention the main goal(s) of the characters and major obstacles.  That’s sort of the point of the book!  Don’t miss it.

 

3.  You addressed the letter “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Editor” or “Dear Agent.” If at all possible, get a name–it’s more personal.  Most literary agencies have bios and specialties listed for each agent online, so address it to an agent that specializes in your genre(s).  If you’re submitting to a publisher, try using Google and addressing it to an editor that handles submissions.  Even though your manuscript may well be evaluated by somebody else, that will show that you have put some thought into this company specifically.  If the publisher has made no information available, then I think Dear Editor is the least awful alternative.  (I would recommend against calling the publisher and asking for the name of somebody to address it to–I think that’s generally seen as a breach of etiquette).


4.  The query failed to demonstrate an understanding of the company. Check the publisher’s submissions page and see what they’ve published recently.  Unless your book is similar to at least a few books they’ve published recently, it probably isn’t a good fit for that publisher.

 

5.  The query focused too much on you, rather than your story. By and large, credentials don’t matter for novelists unless the credentials will help you sell thousands of copies.  Here are a few examples of credentials that are actually worth noting.

  • You’ve professionally published a book before (please give the title, publisher and year published).  Some authors mention short stories and articles, but these credits aren’t as important.
  • You’ve worked in publishing or any other field related to writing, editing and/or selling books.
  • You’ve sold thousands of copies of a self-published book.  (Nicely done!)
  • You’ve amassed hundreds of thousands of readers.  Maybe you write for a large newspaper or magazine or a well-read blog.
  • You’ve won a major writing award.  PS: It’s only major if editors have heard of it.
  • You have professional experience directly relevant to the book.  Maybe you’re a cop writing a detective story or a teacher writing a children’s book.

Unless your credentials are really impressive, I’d recommend limiting your self-description to 0-1 sentences.

 

6.  The query had typos.  One may be tolerable; anything more than that strongly suggests that the manuscript is riddled with errors and that the author is not yet at a professional level.  Publishers can wait.

 

7.  The query mentioned the prospects of a movie deal or video game. These are irrelevant to the only question the editor cares about: is this book worth publishing?  Also, some editors hate working with sequels/series and would much rather work with novels that could be extended into series later rather than books that have to be published as series.  Publishers are leery of making long-term commitments to unproven authors.  If you’d like a long-running series, it’s easier to publish something small first and extend it into a series after you’ve shown your editor how awesome you and your work are. On the other hand, comic book publishers are generally more amenable to series, but it’s still easier to break in with a one-shot comic book than a limited series or (God help you) an ongoing series.

 

8.  You forgot to mention how long it is. A novel query needs a word-count (rounded to the nearest thousand).  If you’re not sure how long a novel manuscript should be, check out these length guidelines.  Generally, anything between 80,000-100,000 words is safe for an adult novel.  Books for kids and young adults have their own length guidelinesFor comic books and graphic novels: A submission letter for a comic book or graphic novel needs a page-count.  Check the publisher’s past works to see what length they prefer to work with, but most small and medium publishers prefer comic books ~24 pages long. I think there’s more variety among graphic novels, but generally I’d go with something on the higher end of 150-200 pages.  NOTE:  Comic book submissions should include the page count of the comic book as it will be printed, NOT the number of pages in the script.  There may be a slight discrepancy between the two if any of the comic book pages take more than one page of script.

 

9.  The novel hasn’t been finished yet. Extremely few publishers consider uncompleted novel submissions from unpublished authors.  Editors don’t know if/when an author will finish an unfinished manuscript, but it will probably take at least months to finish the first draft, let alone handle the rewrites.  We can wait.  Comic book publishers tend to be a bit more receptive to works in progress, so check the submissions page to learn about each publisher’s expectations.

 

10.  The query didn’t evoke the right emotional response. According to literary agent Janet Reid, “If you tell me this book is a comedy, and the query letter isn’t funny or amusing, there’s a problem. A big one.”  Similarly, a horror query should make us anxious about whether the characters survive, an action query should make us want to see the hero beat up the bad guys, a romance query should make us care whether the characters get together, etc.  Show us how easily you can move the reader.

 

11.  Your query made it hard to understand character motivations and/or why things happened. In particular, why do the main characters respond like they do to the inciting event (the event that takes them out of their comfort zone at the beginning of the book)? What are they trying to accomplish?

 

12.  The query used rhetorical questions. “Will John survive the creature in the closet?”  This may well be the 50th manuscript the editor has unceremoniously tossed evaluated today.  I’d recommend against rhetorical questions because they’re cheesy and there’s no way to know how a cynical, frazzled editor or agent will answer.  If you start a query with something like “Will John survive the creature in the closet?”, my immediate response will probably be “What the hell is going on?” or “Why do you assume that I care about about John’s survival?” Also, some editors find rhetorical questions patronizing.  I’m especially bothered by rhetorical questions that remind me how little I know about what’s happening.

 

13.  The submission package was missing something. For example, if a novel publisher requires three chapters along with your query, did you include them?  If the comic book publisher requires sample art pages (like most do, besides Dark Horse), did you include them?  If you’ve forgotten something, you’ll probably be insta-rejected.  DO NOT SUBMIT TO A PUBLISHER WITHOUT DOUBLE-CHECKING THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES FIRST.

 

14.  The query letter was written in the voice of a character. Query/submission letters are professional documents that have to convince an editor or agent that you’re a promising business partner.  I’m glad that you’re confident in the voice of the character, but this is probably not the best way to sell that.

  • It’s hard to take a business proposal from a fictional character seriously.
  • Your character can’t talk about out-of-story details as smoothly as you can. Some examples include the word-count, your bio (if applicable), the target audience, etc.
  • It’s hard for your character to establish a working relationship between the author and publisher as well as the author can.
  • There may be plot points that the character doesn’t actually know about.
  • Is the character reliable? The editor can’t be sure.

If the voice is stylish, you can convey that by using language from the story.  “Now, the accountant’s only hope for survival is Agent Orange, a mutant alligator that is probably human-safe.  (Tests are inconclusive).”

 

15. Your typesetting looked unprofessional. Your query letters and script/manuscript are professional documents. They should look like it.

  • Please use black letters on a white (or slightly off-white) page. Black letters on a white background make for a more pleasant reading experience.
  • Please double-space the manuscript/script.  A double-spaced manuscript is easier to read, which helps keep editors and agents attentive and cheerful.  With queries and submission letters, I don’t think it matters much whether it’s single-spaced or double-spaced.  Do keep it to one page, though.
  • Please use Size 12 text.
  • Please use a standard business font, like Times New Roman, Tahoma, Verdana, Georgia, Palatino, Franklin Gothic, Book Antiqua, Bookman Old Style, or maybe Courier New.  Comic book writers, you too should use a standard business font for your submission pages and scripts, too, but definitely use something more daring when you actually letter pages.

 

16.  “Everybody I know agrees that this book is awesome!” References don’t help at all.  In particular, editors do not care what your friends and family think, because they’re probably too close to you to give very honest feedback and (unless they are experienced publishing professionals) probably wouldn’t know all that much about the publishing industry, anyway.  Even an (alleged) endorsement from a major publishing figure (like Steven King or Stan Lee) wouldn’t help a query. If Stan Lee actually is excited about your work, please ask him to refer you to somebody that would be qualified to handle the project.  I have no idea whether Stan Lee actually endorsed you (or what the context was), and I can’t verify either.  However, do mention if you’ve won a major writing award, one the editors will have heard of.  That can be easily verified.

 

17. The “submission” hinges on a list of characters. For example:

  • Name: John Harper
  • Age: 18
  • Occupation: Bartender

Here are some reasons this will almost always lead to a quick rejection:

  • The character’s profession and/or demographics might actually be interesting, but if so, there are much better ways to show that. For example, if John is an under-age bartender and is in so far over his head that he nearly set a customer on fire when preparing a flaming floater, that goes a lot farther to understanding what his story is like and why we should care than just than he’s a 18 year old bartender.
  • Lists of characters are rarely very coherent. I’d recommend instead trying to describe the plot and working in characters as necessary. One key advantage here is that we’ll be able to see much more clearly how the characters interact and how their goals and plots interact.
  • Lists tend to waste a lot of time on irrelevant character details without describing the core elements of the book very well. For example, listing the age separately for several characters is not necessary, particularly if the characters are all around the same age.

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “16 Reasons Your Manuscript Got Rejected Before Page 1”

  1. Loysquaredon 06 Aug 2010 at 1:05 am

    Definitive tips to have in mind! Didn’t know that to better my chances in the comic industry, it’s better to present a limited series first (seventh pointer).

  2. B. Macon 06 Aug 2010 at 8:36 am

    Comic book publishers are more receptive to one-shots/standalones than limited series, and more receptive to limited series than ongoing series. Publishers are generally wary of making long-term commitments to unproven authors.

    That said, I think comic book publishers are a bit more receptive to limited series from unpublished authors than novel publishers are.

  3. Tina Lynnon 07 Aug 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Huh. I was told *to* write my query in the voice of the MC. And I’ve been getting requests. Leave it alone???

  4. B. Macon 07 Aug 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Hello, Tina. Writing a first-person query in the voice of a protagonist isn’t as lethal a problem as typos or submitting an unfinished novel, but I think it usually makes the query less effective than it could be. It’s harder to establish a professional relationship through the voice of a character than through a third-person overview of the book.

    I think it’s a good sign that the author is confident enough in the voice of the character to use it in the introduction, but…
    1) It’s usually awkward for the character to introduce out-of-story facts like the length of the book.
    2) It may misrepresent the character’s voice because the character sounds so much different providing a synopsis/pitch than he/she does in the book.
    3) It’s hard to take a business proposal from a fictional character seriously. Particularly if the character is not serious to begin with.

    Generally, I think it’s more effective to show the character’s voice and/or personality while maintaining the third-person overview. Here are some submissions to Janet Reid that I think do a good job of that: #123, #163 and #117 (albeit only personality and definitely not voice).

    Here’s the first paragraph of #123: “I am seeking representation for ABIDE WITH ME, a 57,000-word crime novel about friendship, community, football, hope, and biscuits. Oh, and gangsters.”



    While reviewing #120, Janet wrote, “You’re also writing in the first person voice of your character and generally that’s not the best choice. Sometimes it works, yes, and I’ve had those queries posted here, but this doesn’t because you’ve left us too little to go on.”

    I’d probably be able to look past the awkwardness if the query developed the story enough, but as above, I don’t think it’d be the most effective approach.

    Dissenting opinion here.

  5. henyaon 09 Aug 2010 at 5:37 am

    I don’t write comic, but your points are universal to any type of writing. I find this post most informative.

  6. B. Macon 09 Aug 2010 at 10:05 am

    Thanks, Henya.

  7. Cassandraon 09 Aug 2010 at 10:53 am

    Do you have any articles about good places to look for reputable agents or publishing companies for books with a superhero/supernatural angle?

  8. B. Macon 09 Aug 2010 at 10:58 am

    Here’s a list of superhero novels and their publishers–that’s probably a good place to look for publishers that will be receptive to a project like yours.

    As for agents that are looking for superhero novels… I’ll look more into that and let you know. Thanks for the question.

  9. Dforceon 10 Aug 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Hi B. Mac. I trust all has been well. Great article.

    Question though: Say you finish a one-shot and get is published–or a limited series at that. Is it feasible or wise to later go back and expand it to an ongoing or to it’s originally inteded lengthier series should luck hold out at a later date? (Even if by having to change some names/facts/mythos or premises around).

    Or should the One-Shot/Limited Series be marked as “To Be Forgotten” by it’s creator, and he encouraged to immediately move on to other projects?

  10. B. Macon 11 Aug 2010 at 2:49 pm

    If the one-shot or limited series sells well and/or the editor likes how it turns out, the publisher will probably be receptive to publishing a longer series. Maybe even an ongoing series, if you have REALLY impressed them with your reliability, professionalism and creative skills.

    If the one-shot or limited series doesn’t sell very well (which is typical for inexperienced authors), I think the publisher would probably be leery about continuing with the series. However, talk it up with your editor–the editor may feel that your universe has sales potential, but that it’ll take more time to reel in readers.

    If you work on something else, you can always return to the mythos/universe after you’ve developed your authorial skills and/or expanded your audience. I think publishers give experienced authors (and popular authors, especially) more latitude to pick their projects.

    If you’re REALLY interested in working a series even though your original publisher isn’t interested in continuing it at the moment, depending on the original contract you signed, you may be able to publish with another company. For example, Transformers was once published by Marvel and then by Dreamwave Productions, but currently it’s published by IDW. I don’t know enough about the legal details to help you much there, so I’d recommend speaking to a lawyer with business handling publishing contracts (BEFORE signing the original contract, of course).

    As for the question of whether the author should want to continue working on the series rather than trying something new:
    –If the original sold pretty well, continuing it is probably less financially risky than starting something new.

    –I would not EVER continue a series unless I had something left to tell.

    –If the sales weren’t so good and/or it didn’t turn out so well, I think it’d probably be best to work on something else for now. That’ll probably give you more time to develop your style and gather ideas about how to handle it better next time.

    –If you try something new, generally I think it’s financially safest to try something with some audience overlap with your original work. That makes it easier to convince readers of your old work to buy your new work.

  11. Dforceon 11 Aug 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for the advice. Much appreciated.

  12. Hildaon 12 Aug 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Do you have any samples we can use as guidelines about writing stories in transcript format to Archie comics?

  13. B. Macon 12 Aug 2010 at 9:50 pm

    According to the Comics Reporter, Archie Comics doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. I searched through AC’s website for a submissions page or anything about how to submit and found nothing. I’ve e-mailed them for clarification, but so far I’m guessing they’re not looking for new writers.

    If you’re dead-set on writing for Archie Comics anyway, you could submit anyway. Since they don’t have submissions guidelines, I’d recommend using Dark Horse formatting for your script–see this Word document. The worst case scenario is that they’d reject your manuscript, which strikes me as likely but not 100% guaranteed.

  14. Hildaon 21 Aug 2010 at 5:33 am

    Thank you so much! 🙂

    I’ve sent emails to Archie in the past about my positive opinions about their stories and such and also a request for their guidelines. I’ve noticed that they don’t have great communication or something because I’ve never gotten a reply back, ONLY when it came to an order problem (which has happened a few times). 🙁

  15. B. Macon 21 Aug 2010 at 8:14 am

    They didn’t get back to me, either. That’s pretty annoying. It shouldn’t take more than 30 seconds to write a response to “Are you accepting submissions?”

    I guess you could try contacting somebody at AC through LinkedIn, if you’re still interested.

  16. […] 16 Reasons Why Your Manuscript Got Rejected Before Page 1 […]

  17. bretton 07 Oct 2010 at 11:14 pm

    I’d like to talk about points 1 and 8

    1. I’ve heard agents and publishers actually want a ‘logline’ like that. Granted, it won’t make or break you, but if the submission guidelines mention it, I’d put it in.
    8. One of the biggest things I got from agentquery.com is to omit the page count. Some of the testimonials even mention it.

  18. B. Macon 08 Oct 2010 at 7:40 am

    Whenever you’re submitting to an agent or publisher, absolutely follow their submission guidelines, no matter what you’ve heard anywhere else.

    I totally agree with you and Agent Query that novelists should omit the page count. Provide the word count (rounded to the nearest thousand words) instead. The page count is all but useless to novel publishers because the page count fluctuates based on your typesetting choices (font, font size, spacing, etc).

    (Comic book writers should stick with the page count of the comic book as it will be printed–NOT the number of pages in the script. There may be a slight discrepancy between the two because some pages of the comic book may take more than one page to script).

  19. Chihuahua0on 27 Jul 2011 at 4:55 pm

    A couple of novel writing books I had read says that a referral can help your chances of being accepted, especially if the referrer wrote a book in the same genre. One of them says that if you have one, you should start your query with it right after “Dear Mr. [Editor]”. How valid is this advice?

  20. B. Macon 27 Jul 2011 at 6:46 pm

    If the referrer actually knows and/or has worked with the reader, I agree it’d be worth mentioning quickly. (IE: “Jane Doe [one of your authors] asked me to send this directly to you”). Even better, have the referrer let the reader know ahead of time that this manuscript is coming and how much he/she liked it.

    I don’t think it would help much if a stranger that worked with another publisher (purportedly) endorsed your manuscript. Personally, I wouldn’t be impressed because:
    –I don’t know the stranger well enough to know whether I should trust his opinion.
    –Even I did think I could trust his opinion, it’d be hard for me to verify the endorsement. If I were reading a submission blindly addressed to me rather than somebody that the reference personally knew, it would raise red flags that the referrer either doesn’t care that much about the work and/or the submitter just made up the endorsement entirely.
    –If the referrer actually was so impressed by your work, why aren’t you publishing at his publisher? (If there’s some unusual situation where a major-league referrer is excited about the work but it isn’t a good fit for his/her publisher, then I think it’d be best to have him/her explain the situation to an editor he/she trusts at another company).

    PS: I think there are more effective ways to establish your credibility. For example, if your work is good enough to get a quality agent (preferably one at least known by reputation to the target editor), that’s a pretty clear sign that a professional carefully evaluated your manuscript and found it promising. If you’re on your own, a strong query goes a long way to convincing editors to give your partial manuscript extra consideration.

  21. L. Coakleyon 06 Sep 2011 at 11:01 am

    A very valuable post! (But I really want to read the Harry Potter meets Dirty Harry book.)

  22. A. Sprowelon 06 Aug 2014 at 1:32 pm

    would it be better to write a one shot graphic novel than a limited comic series. either way i kind of do want an ongoing series with it but the way the plot is longer than one comic book length.

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