When we ask most agents how to avoid rejections on query letters, the basic information is the same: do your research (aka don’t send a MG/YA manuscript to an Erotica agent), be respectful (never send to “Dear Agent”), check your spelling, and state your plot succintly. Making simple mistakes and not following submission guidelines accounts for at least half of slush pile rejections.
But what if you’re doing everything right, and still getting form rejections? The good folks over at Writing-World.com talked to 50 editors about problems with manuscripts coming in for short fiction submissions. I believe that they’re applicable to our novel manucripts as well. So go ahead and take a look, scan your manuscript for any of these issues, and decide whether or not a change might improve your story.
These are the problems that plague stories that meet all the basic requirements, but still don't quite "make the grade."
Seven Deadly Sins
Several editors had their own pet peeves to share. Here are seven problems that can speed your story to the rejection pile:
• Preachiness- "Stories that present an obvious moral, without nuances, subtlety, or complexity, are the first to hit the [reject] pile," says Skylar Burris of Ancient Paths.
• Cliches- "I did, actually, receive a story that began, 'It was a dark, stormy night.'," says Tom Rice of Elbow Creek Magazine. "It shows that a writer is not particularly careful with the quality of the story."
• Outlandish names- This is another peeve of Tom Rice: "Nothing pulls me out of a story more quickly than thinking, 'You know, no parent in their right mind would have named their child that.'" Tommy Zurhellen of Black Warrior Review agrees: "Don't be cute. When I see Mercutio or Hezekiah, I drop the story. Write about real people."
• Lack of knowledge- "If your story revolves around hacking into computers, it's best that you at least know your way around your own computer," says Tom Rice. "If you are writing a story about the Old West and you want to include an Indian character, make sure that the tribe he/she was from actually existed within the confines of the territory you are using."
• Autobiographical stories- "Leave the baggage in your own house, don't put it in an envelope to send to an editor," says Andrew Gulli of The Strand Magazine. "The great writer is the one who despite having bad parents and despite all the difficulty is able to create something so completely opposite that it is very believable. It is easier said than done."
• Cute Titles- "If we get another title like 'Getting Vanessa' or 'Moving Shane' we will sue somebody," says Zurhellen. "Don't be cute. Keep it simple and short."
• Stupid cover letters "Give us your name, the story, some previous pubs, and sign off," says Zurhellen. "Editors don't want to know how long you worked on it, or what your mom thinks of it, or what someone semi-famous said about your writing, or who rejected your last story." Don't include your resume or CV, and keep your cover letter to one page. And make it interesting, says Don Muchow of Would That It Were. "I do not like authors who are scared, humble, diffident or otherwise unsure of themselves. Send me the kind of biographies you'd tell me at a party, not the kind you'd put on your resume. If you don't think you're interesting, no one else will either."
And here are the five big fiction mistakes they listed as being reasons for rejection:
-No sense of voice
-Too many adjectives and adverbs.
-Using "big" words when simple ones would do.
-Too much detail or backstory.
-Characters the reader won't care about.
-Characters who do not grow or learn.
Editors complained of two basic plot problems: Trite, hackneyed plots, or no plot. Ian Randall Strock says many of his rejections are the result of "the author sending me a really old, lame idea that's been done to death for decades, and the author hasn't done anything new with it." Many felt too many writers were deriving their plots from television rather than real life. "We don't want last week's Buffy plot," says Diane Walton.
Editors -- and readers -- aren't just looking for great action and strong characters. They also want a sense of "why." Why should I read this? Why did you write it?
"This is not to say every work should address an Aesopish moral or a grand theme, but rather every story should contain at its core a reason to be," says Max Keele. "In fact, that is my single personal demand from a story: That it add up to something. That it shock me, scare me, unnerve me, make me think, or cry, or vomit. Something."
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