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).
6. The introduction is forgettable. Some common problems:
- The main character(s) doesn’t do anything interesting early on. (Red flag: The story starts with a character waking up and doing his morning routine).
- The main character isn’t well-developed early on. Give the character a chance to establish himself early. (For example, force him into a difficult choice).
- Too little is at stake. The character doesn’t have to be in physical danger, but do threaten something or some goal he cares about.
7. The author has forgotten the word count or the word count is outside of the publisher’s range. You need to tell your publisher how long the manuscript is (to the nearest thousand words). The page count is NOT acceptable for novel publishers because the page count fluctuates wildly based on your typesetting choices (spacing, font, size, etc). Most publishers prefer adult novel manuscripts between 80,000-100,000 words, but length guidelines vary a bit by genre.
8. The antagonists are forgettable. For example, they may be one-dimensionally evil, not threatening enough (like a villain that lets the hero walk away from a tough loss), not challenging enough for the protagonists, a cardboard cliche (like most bullies), etc.
9. The main character doesn’t change. This doesn’t have to be positive change–for example, Frodo gets corrupted by the ring. The character’s capabilities may be a part of it (like Peter Parker becoming more confident after developing superpowers), but it should definitely go beyond just the capabilities. For example, does the character’s personality change? Does he develop any new flaws? Do his motivations/goals change? Etc.
10. The protagonist is too perfect/unflawed. It’s probably unbelievable and possibly even goofy if the protagonist is a purely unvarnished bundle of virtue and everybody he faces is pure eeeevil. I’d recommend some morally gray obstacles. For example, maybe the character’s friends aren’t 100% supportive of everything he does, maybe his coworkers/bosses have reasonable disputes with the character, or maybe there’s an antagonist whose intentions are pretty pure, etc. If there’s no approach for a character to disagree with the hero without coming off as a bad person, the hero is probably not morally complex enough to feel fully believable.