May 30 2012

The Most Common Reasons Good Manuscripts Get Rejected

Published by at 4:57 am under Getting Published

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.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “The Most Common Reasons Good Manuscripts Get Rejected”

  1. Carl Shinyamaon 30 May 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Using this post as a basis for established comic book writers, Death of Spider-man would not have gotten approval for publication. I would have been quite OK with that.

  2. B. McKenzieon 30 May 2012 at 10:40 pm

    It might have some applicability there, but I wrote it with unsolicited novel manuscripts in mind. The standards of publishability are different for well-established authors.

  3. Anonymouson 31 May 2012 at 7:49 pm

    I know. I guess I was kinda sore that I finally decided pitch forth money to read only to be rather disappointed to the point I wish Marvel decided against it.

  4. St.on 01 Jun 2012 at 6:03 pm

    I see #5 in a lot of my writing circles and it always feel like the writer is still trying to fill the character out and get a sense of what they’re working with. It sets readers up to be dragged through the trenches of the writing process until the author gets the hang of it around page 70. Anyway. . .

    I’ve been reading a lot of blogs that state that writers should leave character back stories at the door. But does that apply to superheroes? Doesn’t everyone love a superhero origin story?

  5. Anonymouson 01 Jun 2012 at 8:09 pm

    St. – My feeling is that origin stories should be included as long as they are interesting. Also, it is usually the beginning of the reader’s relationship with that character, so you should usually include it. However, if you want that reader to maintain that relationship with the character, you must continue to tell interesting stories.

    I don’t know how familiar you are with the site, but B. Mac has a section about origin stories:

    http://www.superheronation.com/2009/12/08/new-category-origin-stories/

    Included in one of those links are some of B. Mac’s statements:

    ‘… A character is usually the most human and relatable during his origin story. Additionally, for most superheroes they also provide an irreplaceable opportunity to introduce the audience to the character. For example, an author couldn’t explain who Spiderman is without showing why his uncle died…

    Usually, the audience is completely new to the backstory. If so, then explaining the character’s origin is probably essential to introducing the audience to the world and/or the character.”

  6. Carl Shinyamaon 01 Jun 2012 at 8:16 pm

    Oops, forgot to include my name and info in the above post.

  7. B. McKenzieon 01 Jun 2012 at 9:39 pm

    “I’ve been reading a lot of blogs that state that writers should leave character back stories at the door. But does that apply to superheroes? Doesn’t everyone love a superhero origin story?” It’s one possible way to develop a character’s goals and motivations and explain where the powers came from. But it’s not necessary (see The Incredibles, for example–there’s not much, if any, explanation of where the characters’ superpowers came from or why the parents originally chose to become superheroes). If the origin story builds the character in an interesting way, I wouldn’t have a problem with it (although I would recommend being brief if the origin story is told as a flashback rather than as it is actually happening–otherwise it could stall the plot).

    Alternately, perhaps the flashback is critical to the “now” of the story–for example, maybe the Mad Hatter is causing Batman to relive the scene where his parents die (or perhaps a variation of the scene–please see Batman’s “Perchance to Dream” and Justice League’s “For the Man Who Has Everything”).

    PS: Speaking of backstories in superhero stories, I’d recommend checking out how Bob Moore, No Hero handles the backstory of the main character’s divorce and the death of his daughter in childbirth. The details are very relevant to the “now” of the story (he holds a grudge against the doctor, who is now his client).

  8. ekimmakon 02 Jun 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Funny thing about Peter’s backstory, for some reason I recall variations where he did just let the robber go, saying “I’m just a wrestler”.

    And some variations where the robbery is unrelated, but he doesn’t do anything because he’s mad over something or other.

  9. Carl Shinyamaon 02 Jun 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Hey B. Mac, can I get a review forum for my Megapower book?

  10. B. McKenzieon 03 Jun 2012 at 1:42 am

    Carl, I’ve set it up here.

  11. Mynaon 22 Jul 2012 at 6:01 am

    “One potential issue is when the main character passively waits for the main plot to unfold.” Oh man, this describes one of my recent stories pretty well >.> I need to make sure that the main character or at least some character is driving the plot along, instead of the plot driving the rest of the cast.

    “…you can use an intermediate goal to drive the story forward and develop the character.” That is a very good idea… I have an idea for how to fix this now. : )

    Thank you for this article B. Mac! I’ve been having trouble with a recent novel and this helped me figure out what was wrong with it. I’m sorry I haven’t been on the site in awhile, been traveling and visiting family, and when you’re family lives 9,000+ miles away that takes a lot of time… >.>;;

  12. Toasteron 22 Dec 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Some of the YA novels have, unfortunately, many of those points you mentioned. It makes me want to cry in frustration.

  13. Dr. Vo Spaderon 24 Dec 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Home for the holidays, and not an eve too soon! Speaking of which, is there a way to incorporate holidays into a novel without seeming ridiculous? (e.g. stop the bomb and save Christmas)

  14. Dr. Vo Spaderon 24 Dec 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Or, more specifically, what’s the best way to imply that it’s holiday times without having a character say it?

  15. FireGodon 12 Jan 2014 at 10:48 pm

    Got caught on #1, unfortunately. My novel is, at its core, about twelve kids who are being set up (against their will, I should add) to become god-like beings akin to the twelve Olympians of Ancient Greece. I’ve developed about half of them so far, and it’s becoming a little difficult to juggle them. Any tips for handling them?

    Also, I’m concerned that giving my characters the strength and power of gods may be overpowering them a little. I would greatly appreciate some ideas for maybe giving them a few limitations.

  16. catswoodsriveron 06 Nov 2015 at 4:06 pm

    Maybe they can only access the power by letting the god’s personality take over. Maybe they have a time limit, or times used limit.

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