May 30 2012
Most publishers reject 99%+ of unsolicited submissions. Based on the manuscripts I’ve read, here’s my take on the most common issues that separate pretty good manuscripts from the top 1%.
1. The main protagonists act too much like most other protagonists would act in the same situation. This will probably make the characters feel generic and forgettable. Some fixes:
- Please make sure that your characters have distinguishing traits. These will help you find situations where the characters act differently than most protagonists would. For example, in The Avengers, Tony Stark has a lot more curiosity than self-control or tact, so it is fitting and memorable that he electrically prods Banner to see whether Banner can resist turning into the Hulk under pressure.
- Make sure there are consequences for every decision (especially the unusual ones). Cattle-prodding the Hulk leads to an interesting confrontation with more compassionate and/or restrained characters. The consequences make the decision more memorable.
- If your cast is too large, it is harder to distinguish each character. If this is an issue, merging and/or deleting characters would give you more opportunities to develop each character. It’d be much easier to sell a novel publisher on a superhero team with 2-4 interesting members than 5-7 scantly-developed heroes.
- Please develop your characters beyond their capabilities (e.g. superpowers). If your query letter spends more time talking about a main character’s superpowers than developing the character’s distinguishing traits and/or personality and/or motivations, I would lean towards a rejection.
2. The main protagonists are generically nice and/or do not make disagreeable decisions. This does not mean that the protagonists have to be antiheroes (and especially does not mean that they should be jackasses*), but readers should disagree with something the main character does. For example, Peter Parker lets the robber go out of petty spite. This will help add a bit of moral depth and help establish that the character has a pulse.
3. *The main characters are totally unlikable. Some common examples:
- The main characters are generic and lack any personality or distinguishing traits, particularly everyman high school students dealing with one-dimensionally nasty bullies and superheroes dealing with forgettable bank robbers.
- Characters that act disagreeably without any reason to. Peter Parker comes across as petty (but not a jackass) for letting the robber go, because the robber’s victim had tried to cheat Peter. In contrast, just letting him go for the hell of it would have been jackassery.
- The character doesn’t have a personality besides being angry. If you’re doing a revenge-driven character in the mold of the Punisher, I’d recommend looking at how values like honor and loyalty keep the protagonist of Point of Impact likable even though he’s a frosty killer.
4. The plot is too hard to follow. Can 95%+ of your readers accurately recount what is literally happening in each scene?
- Do we have enough information to understand why things are happening?
- In particular, the first time something supernatural comes up, I would recommend being clear that something unusual is happening, because readers aren’t yet sure that supernatural explanations are in play.
- Are fictional words and concepts introduced gradually enough that new readers can figure out what’s going on and how the pieces fit together?
- Can we figure out who is delivering each line of dialogue?
5. The beginning is too slow and/or does not show the main character(s) doing interesting things. Common offenders:
- The story starts with a prologue far removed from the main characters.
- We don’t get enough chances to see what makes the main characters exciting and/or different than most characters in their genre(s). For example, a main character waking up and doing a mundane routine would probably bore readers, unless the character has been woken up by a barrage of artillery fire or his morning routine is preparing for a commando raid at 0400.
- The narrator drops an infodump, a block of exposition which focuses on worldbuilding at the expense of characters doing interesting things. I would generally recommend introducing your world by having characters experience it.
6. The stakes are too low and/or the goals are not urgent enough for the characters. The stakes don’t have to be life or death, but the characters really need to feel that something major is at stake.
- One potential issue is when the main character passively waits for the main plot to unfold. If you need some time to bring the main character into the main plot, you can use an intermediate goal to drive the story forward and develop the character. For example, Harry Potter spends several chapters dealing with his family before coming to Hogwarts, Tony Stark deals with Afghani terrorists before tangling with the main villain, and Luke Skywalker argues with his uncle about becoming a pilot before he fights against the Empire.
7. The plot hinges on inexplicably idiotic decisions, like a villain letting the heroes go or a character withholding critical information for no apparent reason. Make sure that important decisions have motivations. For example, in The Matrix, the villains release a captured protagonist after bugging him so that he will unwittingly lead them to the other protagonists. In contrast, releasing the heroes without any ulterior motive will probably make the villain feel 100% nonthreatening and raises huge issues about whether anything is actually at stake for the heroes. If I had been otherwise leaning towards a rejection on a manuscript, this would certainly push me over.
8. The main plot gets derailed by side-plots. The most common offender I’ve seen here is half-hearted romances. If you’re not into romance (e.g. have never read a romance novel or short story), those thousands of words could probably be used more effectively elsewhere.