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Editors Reject Manuscripts
by Vicki Hinze
Reasons Manuscripts are Most Frequently Rejected by
Editors and/or Agents
Once per year for the last seven or eight years, I've
surveyed a number of editors from large publishing
houses, small presses, and a group of small and large
literary agents in various genres, trying to get a good
cross-section of responses so that writers could get a
firm grip of what's going on in the industry. What I'm
about to share with you are the reasons these industry
professionals cited that they most often reject
manuscripts. I've included insights I've learned along
the way on how to rid your work of those infractions or
troublespots. Hopefully, by identifying the challenges
and sharing how to correct them in your work, each of you
will get fewer rejection letters.
I've broken the responses down in groups so that we can
deal with them efficiently--and I hope sufficiently.
CONTENT. Across the board, editors and agents are
still getting manuscripts that they can't possibly buy.
For example: Sending a category romance to a publisher
that publishes only single title or mainstream novels. Or
sending a single title or mainstream novel to a house
that publishes only category romances.
As well as inappropriate classifications, some authors
send mysteries to houses that publish only romance
novels, or science fiction to publishers/agents who
handle only fantasy. An example that narrows the extent
of this challenge is homing in on novel focus. Such as, a
writer submitting an erotica novel to publishers such as
Avalon, who publishes "sweet" romances.
Content goes beyond these obvious classifications. The
only way an author can truly tell whether or not his or
her work fits with a specific publisher--and then with a
specific editor at a specific publisher--is to read the
books that the targeted publisher publishes.
A writer can get a general idea of what types of novels
do well for a given publisher via word of mouth (from
booksellers, librarians), the publisher's guidelines, the
publisher's reputation among writers, and through
talking/meeting with editors/agents at conferences, but
nothing gives the writer insight like reading the books.
Most publishers have active websites that list the books
they're publishing. Review the list, talk with other
authors, investigate to see what success the publisher is
having at publishing its books, and then read the actual
books. There, you will gain the greatest insight
What the writer ultimately wants to discover is a house
that publishes books which are compatible with the
writer's books. The writer doesn't want a house that is
already publishing the same thing. S/he wants a publisher
who is publishing something similar.
Example: When I was
writing contemporary, military-themed romantic suspense
and I shopped for a new publisher, I didn't want to
approach a publisher already publishing contemporary,
military-themed romantic suspense. I'd be asking a
publisher to publish books wherein it is competing with
all the other publishers and with itself. That publisher
is going to want to build the author writing these who is
But let's say I wrote historical, military-themed
romantic suspense. The house is open to military-themed
romantic suspense--it's already publishing contemporary
versions of it--and currently it doesn't have an author
writing historical military-themed romantic suspense.
In that case, a publisher who wouldn't have been a
submission candidate now is a submission candidate.
So when it comes to content, an editor is more apt to be
interested in a book that is compatible with his/her
current list, but not in direct competition to it. As a
writer, that's the niche you're looking to fill. The same
and yet different. Your unique niche.
Study the content of the books currently being published
by a house and determine the editor with whom you see the
greatest potential for success.
Agents: While only an agent determines his/her
clients, they do typically specialize in areas of
interest and expertise. Many, for example, don't start
out intending to handle only women's fiction. Yet their
personal interests and tastes and the clients they
already represent do influence an agent who is choosing
what clients to add to their list.
Some agents focus on one type of fiction. Others are more
expansive in their tastes and preferences. It's important
to the writer to determine those preferences and normal
tendencies of an agent. Sometimes agents at larger
agencies are less restrictive in what they'll handle.
The rationale is simple, if you think about it. No one
can be an expert at everything. But an agent operating
with a group of agents can rely on their own expertise
and that of his/her fellow agents. That can be a whale of
an asset if a writer writers in multiple genres.
Ultimately, the writer wants an agent with a firm grip on
his/her market who has contacts and is familiar with the
tastes of the editors in his/her market. An agent who has
the skills necessary to determine who is the right editor
and the best possible publisher for the writer's work.
CONTEXT. Either the plot or the characters are not
suitable for the publisher's established reader base.
example: A writer submits erotica to a regional
publisher in the Bible belt, where the majority of the
publisher's readers don't buy erotica. So even if the
editor wanted to buy the novel, s/he must reject it
because the publisher can't sell it.
Remember: Editors buy books they love
and can sell to their identified reader base.
Context infractions cover a multitude of sins, but the
key point is that in some fashion, the editor feels that
the work won't be of interest to or acceptable to the
readers it has identified for a specific type of book.
This can apply to books that cross genres also. So if you
write a novel that incorporates strong aspects of
multiple genres, then realize that it could take longer
to sell because it doesn't clearly fit on one specific
place on the bookstore's shelves. This type of novel
definitely carries higher risks for the author and the
publisher, so if you make the decision to write
cross-genre or multiple-genre books, understand the risks
Also, realize a publisher might have an excellent track
record at selling romantic suspense, but a lousy record
at selling mystery or straight suspense. Obviously, you
want match up what you're good at writing with what a
publisher is good at selling.
These things require the writer to do homework--and s/he
should be delighted to do it.
As writers, we write for the joy of it and we recognize
writing as a gift and an art. But the moment we choose to
sell what we've written, we leave the artistic realm and
enter the commercial fiction zone.
In the zone, we have one objective and that is selling
our work. To do that successfully, we have the
responsibility of understanding how our industry works.
Now many writers groan about that. They just want to
write their books. They ignore the business aspect of the
business. And often they get burned or they suffer
setback upon setback because they haven't invested in
learning how things work. They also suffer undue anxiety
about normal and typical events that happen during the
production stage because they have no idea what to
My personal position is this: Many years ago, I developed
a personal policy to write only books I love. I felt that
was important. (The rest of the world could hate my
books; I'd love them.) Well, I still feel that was a good
decision. I invest my time and energy into writing a
book. My time and energy are my life. That's definitely
important! When it comes time to sell my book, I'm sure
not going to dump it just anywhere. I'm going to invest
in that aspect, too, because I want to do all I can to
make certain I've got the best possible publishing
partner. That best serves my work. And best serving my
work best serves me in honoring my life and my gift.
The third most frequently cited category in the reasons
for rejection is:
MECHANICAL and/or TECHNICAL CHALLENGES. These are good news
to the writer because they don't involve that spark of
magic in writing that can't be taught. Mechanical and
technical challenges are ones that we writers can learn
and their infractions are ones we can fix or eliminate
from our work.
Let's look first at the Mechanical Challenges
voice. Write in an active voice. So that what is
happening in the story is happening now in the reader's
mind. Show, don't tell. Often writers create what is
called psychic distance in their books, and more often
than not the way writers create it is through author
Let's explore the process.
As writers we're charged with the responsibility of
drawing the reader in, making him care about the
character and identify with the characters. To do that,
we must create and maintain the fictional dream. There's
an article on that on the website in the Writers' Aids
section, but let me say here that it is through the
fictional dream that a reader is transported from reading
words on a page to living the events of the novel.
The reader is an armchair adventurer, but through the
fictional dream, s/he becomes an active participant in
the story--through the characters' senses. Now if the
author intrudes and places herself between the reader and
character, then the reader isn't experiencing the story
firsthand. She is being told a story.
To close that psychic distance gap and plant the reader
inside the character's head, you have to go through your
work and ditch the filters that create the distance.
Some watchwords are: thought, wondered, considered,
Do your best to delete all of them. The rule of thumb is
to ditch them. If you sacrifice clarity by ditching them,
then let them stay in the book. They've earned their
space. Otherwise, they're out of there.
Example: She realized
she'd reached the point of no return. She had to kill
She realized is a filter. The author telling the reader
what the character is thinking. See the psychic distance?
How what is occurring in the novel is filtered from the
character, through the writer, and then to the reader?
Revise it, and let the character think for herself.
The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill
Now, without the filter, you have no psychic distance
between the reader and character. You've closed the gap
and the reader is inside the character's head.
body parts. This infraction is a mechanical pet
peeve as annoying as a buzzing mosquito. To rid it from
your work, all you must do is remember that parts of a
character's body cannot act independently.
My favorite example is one many of you have heard on
Her eyes fell to her plate.
Now you want to create a vivid image, but unless you're
writing horror and you want the reader to "see"
eyeballs popping out of someone's head and landing in
their plate, you need to revise this to eliminate the
autonomous body part.
She lowered her gaze to her plate.
This sounds like a trivial infraction, but its impact is
not trivial, it's significant. Again, check out the
When the reader reads: Her eyes fell to her plate, she
automatically envisions that happening literally. She has
to stop, look at the sentence in context, deduce and
intuit that the writer really meant the character lowered
Readers are clever and they can figure this out, but
because they have to stop and use deductive reasoning to
intuit the true meaning, you (the writer) have broken the
fictional dream. You've reminded the reader that she
isn't living the events, she isn't the character, and
that she hasn't been transported anywhere. She's sitting
in her recliner, trying to participate in a fictional
dream but you keep waking her up!
Intrude too often, and the reader puts the book down and
doesn't pick it back up. That's not trivial. It's
It's unlikely the reader will identify a broken fictional
dream as the reason s/he doesn't like a book, but s/he'll
give telling clues. "I just couldn't get into the
book. I didn't care for the character." Or s/he will
say something like: "You know, I started that book
fifty times, but I just never finished it."
before effect, reaction before action, syntax error. All of these are
essentially the same infraction. It's important to
remember that whatever a reader reads first on the page
is what happens first in the reader's mind. So when
you're writing, make sure you write the action first and
follow it with the reaction.
Example: Fear streaked
up his spine when the snake hissed.
In this case, the snake's hiss is the action. The
character's fear is a reaction to the snake's hiss.
So to correct this, you'd simply reverse the phrases. He
hears the snake hiss--the action--and then he feels
A simple thing and easy to fix, as are most of these
mechanical/technical challenges. But things that
significantly impact the work.
use of Names in Dialogue. Dialogue is
supposed to imitate real life conversation, but it is
different. A lot of what is said in real conversation is
omitted in dialogue because it's useless chatter that
hasn't earned its space in a book.
Still, dialogue must ring true to the ear, must emulate
real conversation. And when engaged in real conversation
we don't often use each other's names.
Writers often include names to make it clear to the
reader who is talking. But we can use others skills to
accomplish that without relying heavily on the too
frequent use of names.
We can give each character a distinctive voice. A
distinct-to-the-character phrase, or the rhythm of the
way a character talks can make it evident who is
speaking. Remember, verbiage, level of formality, as well
as the level of discretion and acceptable topics all acts
as unique evidence of individual character traits. For
example: a Wall Street stockbroker "sounds"
different from a Texas rancher.
We can use action tags. Action tags are wonderful tools
that do double duty. Let's say you have two characters
chatting. The goal is information sharing. One character
is planting seedlings in a garden. The other is drinking
a glass of lemonade. By having the character shovel the
dirt, pat it, water the seedling, you make it clear to
the reader s/he is the character talking without using a
name. The other character can run a finger down the
chilled glass. Crunch down on a cube of ice. So action
tags make it clear who is talking and give the illusion
of action and help anchor the scene (that will become
significant momentarily, since it too was cited by the
editors/agents). Double duty.
Avoid figure, frame, and presence. I had hoped we'd be
beyond this one, but obviously, by its high placement in
the survey results, editors and agents are still seeing
Example: Don't write: He
leaned his massive frame against the door.
Do write: He leaned against the door.
To drive the point home on why you shouldn't use figure,
frame or presence when you mean a body, let me ask you a
simple question. When was a the last time you saw a
gorgeous person and thought, "Wow, what a nice
actions. When you have a character doing a series
of actions, avoid having them do the physically
impossible simultaneously. "And" is a wicked
abuser on this type infraction.
Example: She called 911, went to the car, and drove
to the hospital.
A character simply cannot do all three simultaneously.
If the phone is a cell phone, she can do two of three at
once. But she can't "go" to the car and being
driving to the hospital at the same time. To correct
this, remove the simultaneous "and" then insert
the sequential "then."
She called 911, went to the car, then drove to the
Now, she isn't doing the physically impossible. Again,
this is a small infraction, but one that requires the
reader to stop and deduce the writer's true meaning. It
again broke the fictional dream.
Keep items in a series parallel. Make sure your subjects,
verbs, and syntax agree. If your character is walking,
he's chewing gum. If he walks, he chews gum. If you use
walk, then use chew. Keep the tenses parallel.
Ellipsis. The series of
dots. Please be judicious in using the ellipsis.
Otherwise, when you reach a point in your work that would
really benefit from it, the ellipsis will be too weakened
to carry any weight.
Understand the emotional impact of punctuation.
When you're reading and you come to a comma, you pause.
At a semicolon, you pause a tad longer. A colon, little
longer. At a dash, you prepare for an interrupted
thought. At a period, you stop.
An ellipsis carries a SERIES of PERIODS--three or four
depending on the sentence and publisher's preference.
(Technically, a complete sentence gets four; an
incomplete one gets three, but some publishers use three
regardless.) A series of periods is a lot of stopping.
It's also visually disruptive to the reader.
Lots of stops and visual interruptions "awaken"
the reader from the fictional dream. That's
counterproductive to the writer's goal, which is to
establish and maintain that fictional dream from the
beginning to the end of the book. Offer the reader too
many opportunities to stop or too many interruptions and
s/he puts the book down and doesn't pick it back up.
These are the "technical"
reasons most frequently leading to rejection cited by the
editors and agents:
Character Behavior. Hands down, this challenge topped
the list of cited technical reasons for rejection. (It
has for several years.)
Writers need to remember that protagonists are not like
us. They're like the people we want to be. Admirable,
honorable, considerate, strong, and they aspire to worthy
goals. Protagonists have all these positive attributes,
and it shows--in their thoughts, actions and in their
The best thing a writer can do to eliminate these
challenges from her work is to respect her characters.
Villains, too. I want to caution you to give your
villains redeeming qualities.
Apparently, from comments on the survey, this is still a
common problem. (There's an article on villains in my
Remember that no one, not even a psychotic, considers
himself a bad person. So when you're in a character's
point of view, be mindful of that. S/he feels just,
rational, logical, and maybe even noble or saintly in
what s/he is doing--even if it's twisted and crazy to the
rest of us.
Often, writers develop villains who are pure evil.
Understand that this diminishes the villain's capacity to
act. The hero and the reader know what to expect from
such a villain--the worse he's capable of inflicting--so
doubt is diminished and suspense along with it.
Understand, too, that when you make a villain weak, you
also weaken your hero. He might be strong, have all the
admirable traits and things we readers admire and want in
a hero, but we'll never know it because he doesn't have a
means to show it in the story. If the hero acts heroic
against a weak villain, the writer risks having the hero
come across as a bully beating up on a wimp. The result?
You have a weakened villain, a weakened hero, and that
means you have to come up with a weaker (less complex and
critical) plot because the characters lack the strength
to carry a weighty, complex plot.
To make this clear, think of the novel as a rope bridge.
The hero and villains are ropes. If they're strong, tied
securely (meaning well-motivated), then that bridge
(novel) can carry a lot of weight. That means, a lot of
plot, a lot of serious conflicts, a lot of obstacles of
If either rope is frayed, worn, or weak, then the other
rope must carry its own weight and take up the weak
rope's slack. That means, you can't put as much weight on
the bridge; it can't support it. So you use lesser
conflicts and obstacles and that makes for less complex
But if the ropes (the hero and villain) are strong,
competent, capable, and skilled, and well-motivated, then
that bridge (novel) can carry a lot of weight (complex
novel elements). The bridge (novel) has the support
(strong characters) to carry all the weight (complex
novel elements/events) the writer wants to toss onto it.
Heavy obstacles, substantial conflicts and plots that
require a lot from the characters--physically,
emotionally, and spiritually. They have the ability to
carry it all--anything you want to throw at them--and
that gives the writer more options, more flexibility when
it comes to events and possibilities.
With strong characters and a meaty plot, you've also
increased interest, intensity, and suspense, because now
the outcome is in doubt. What will happen is in doubt.
Who will win? What sacrifices will be made to win? What
obstacles must be confronted and conquered can be far
more extensive and complex . . . and uncertain.
Example of Unheroic Character Behavior: In a romance
novel I reviewed, there was a 17-year-old heroine. (I had
a problem with an underage heroine in a romance novel.
It's atypical coming out of the gate.) She was a drug
user (also atypical; had a problem with that, too) who
had been orphaned and was being raised by her older
In the first three pages of the novel, the heroine was
skipping school, drunk at nine in the morning, and having
sex in a car with a guy that fit the bill as "every
mother's nightmare." I had trouble with all of that.
This heroine isn't the kind of person romance readers
typically admire or relate to, which means the readers
wouldn't identify with the heroine (makes empathy
impossible), and she isn't the type of heroine typically
found in a romance novel (which makes rejection odds rest
at about 99.9%).
It's important to know what's normal, when it comes to
your characters in a specific type of book, and to
understand that when you veer from that normal, you're
increasing the risks of rejection.
heads. This is actually Anchoring Scenes, and we
see it on the survey year after year, so it's
Talking heads is an acronym for a scene where two
characters are engaged in a conversation but the author
has failed to anchor these characters in the scene by
relaying to the reader details that signal where the
characters are or what they're doing. So to correct it,
the writer needs to insert scene anchors. Scene anchors
are easy to incorporate. Select specific, concrete
details that create vivid images in the reader's mind.
Remember, not just any details.
The details the writer chooses should be ones that mirror
or echo the point of view character's current emotional
Example: Your scene occurs
at a lake. The point of view character is a man whose son
just died. What details does he note?
Details that are dark and gloomy--intense details that
carry the sense of his emotional mood: grief, loss,
sorry, and despair.
Maybe he sees dark, murky shadows in the water. Wisteria
vines choking the twisted trunk of an ancient oak. A
slate gray sky. Thunderheads. Weeds bending under the
weight of a frigid wind.
Change the mood of the character, and the writer should
change the details.
(Pause a moment and answer these questions. That will
help you see the significance of this technical
What would a kid who has just learned to ride a bike no
hands see and sense?
What would a woman who had just been told she was loved
by the man she loves see and sense?
What if that woman is already married--to someone else?
What details would she see and sense then? Would they
differ from the details in the previous question?
Mirror or echo the current point of view character's
emotional mood and anchor the scenes so the reader
visualizes and senses where the character is and what the
character is doing.
Like most writers, I read all over the board. On occasion
I run into a book or an author who handles a particular
skill with genius and mastery. George R. R. Martin is a
genius and a master at creating and maintaining the
fictional dream. (You might recall that he did the TV
series, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.)
If you haven't read his FIRE & ICE trilogy, I
recommend you read it. The Clash of Kings, A Storm of
Thrones, and A Clash of Thrones. His handling of the
fictional dream makes these works worth studying. I'll
warn you now to read them once for the joy of it--because
you'll get caught up in the story and not remember to
watch for how he creates that dream or maintains it. So
read for pleasure, then reread with a highlighter in your
hand to see how he does it.
If your experience mirrors mine, you'll learn more from
studying this work than from studying tons of textbooks
on the topic.
Copyright Vicki Hinze. All Rights Reserved.
Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who
routinely shares her expertise at national writers'
conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Her
latest non-fiction book is ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL,
from Spilled Candy Books for Writers. This 589-page ebook
covers everything you need to know about the craft of
writing, the publishing business, and the secrets to
getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is
available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or disk.
Or you can visit Vicki's author site at www.vickihinze.com