Feb 08 2011
1. Proofreading problems, such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and/or poor word usage. Failing to catch these sorts of mistakes in a manuscript or query will almost always lead to a quick rejection.
2. The plot sounds too banal. Your query has one page to give us enough details to show what’s at stake and make your plot come alive. For more on quickly getting to the point, see this article on two-sentence summaries.
- REJECTED: “A man has to save the day.” The only way this could be more generic is if you replaced “man” with “person.” Next time, say something about what he has to do to save the day, who he’s saving it from, etc.
- STILL PRETTY BAD: “A detective has to solve a case.”
- BETTER: “A poisoned detective has 48 hours to solve his own murder.” I like the sense of urgency here.
- SWEETNESS: “A killer who believes himself an artist of unmatched talent is incensed by being placed last on the FBI’s most wanted list. He begins killing off those fugitives above him in twisted manners that serve his creative vision.”
3. The manuscript isn’t finished yet! I’m not aware of any novel publishers that work with first-time novelists that haven’t completed the manuscript. Unproven first-timers prove themselves by completing the manuscript, and until then nobody will know whether you have it in you to finish the job. The publisher can wait.
4. The characters come off banal. What are their personalities like? How are they different from other protagonists in their genre? (Personality? Key traits? Flaws? Hard decisions? Unusual choices? What’s at stake for them? What are they trying to accomplish? What mistakes do they make?)
5. The author has stumbled into a highly-developed niche without trying hard enough to stand out in a good way. In particular, if the author has only read a few books in the genre, it’s probably going to feel like a ripoff of them. Read extensively and try looking for unusual choices you could give the characters. For example, Peter Parker is more human than purely heroic, so it makes sense that he pettily declines to stop the robber that later kills his uncle. Bob Swagger is so loyal that, even after being framed as an assassin, he breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue so that he can bury his dog properly. In each of these cases, the unusual choice leads to a major negative consequence. (Peter’s uncle dies and Bob gives away his position to the FBI).