Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)
10 REASONS AGENTS REJECT YOUR MANUSCRIPT
by Marie Lamba
A number of years ago, before I became a published novelist and later stepped into my current role as an associate literary agent, I was an unknown writer sending out queries for my first novel, The Time Passage. And I was getting a ton of rejections.
But we writers are a persistent bunch. So I kept refining my query, polishing my opening pages, and submitting. Finally agents started requesting that I send my full manuscript for their review. Surely it was only a matter of time before I got an offer for representation, right?
What I got instead were rejections that basically read: “While your novel has merit, I’m afraid I’m going to pass. …” Why were they declining to represent my work? The agents offered few details. And just like that, I’d hit a wall. Because I couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong with The Time Passage, I ultimately placed that manuscript on my shelf, where it still sits today, and moved on to other stories that, fortunately, proved to be more successful.
These days, I’m the agent sending out the “It has merit, but …” rejections. Unfortunately, I send out a lot of them. The query sounded great, the opening pages were clean and promising, yet in the end it was a no from me. Why?
When it comes to requested full manuscripts, I always make an effort to spell out why I passed—after all, I know firsthand how important that information is to a writer. And I think it’s useful for all writers to know that there are common—and avoidable—flaws holding back the majority of the manuscripts agents see. The following are my own top 10 reasons for rejecting a requested full, along with some possible fixes. If you think you’re ready to start submitting, see if your manuscript passes this pressure test; if you’re already engrossed in submissions but your manuscript isn’t getting the results you want, perhaps one of these will strike a chord with you.
REASON #1: IT’S NOT WHAT WAS PROMISED.
When you query an agent, you’re drawing her in with a promise of what’s to come. But sometimes what I get is very different. I’ve requested what was described as a deep women’s fiction story, only to find that it turns into an erotic romance—a category I don’t represent. And a touching young adult novel I’ve been pitched is revealed to be a gory horror tale, another genre I’m not interested in. When I get a manuscript that’s completely different from what I was expecting, I’m disappointed. Queries that aren’t true representations of the story are a waste of my time and the author’s (especially when I end up with genres I simply don’t represent). Mislead me with your pitch, and you can bet I’ll pass.
Give your query a closer look. Does it accurately describe your novel?
Sometimes writers fudge their novel’s description just to fit what an agent says she wants, thinking that once they have the agent’s attention, the manuscript will win her over. Or the author plays up what he thinks is a more marketable element of the story, even though it’s a very minor part. And sometimes a query is inaccurate because the author simply doesn’t have a solid grip on the book’s true slant.
So make your query accurate. Believe me, it matters. Then agents who request your book will truly be interested in what you’re sending.
REASON #2: IT’S WRONG FOR THE GENRE / AUDIENCE.
Works that are clearly not a fit for the intended readership get a swift rejection. Like when a novel intended for ages 8–12 ends up dealing with a serious romance. Or when a work of women’s fiction has a misogynistic point of view. Or when two-thirds into a contemporary YA novel, it suddenly becomes a paranormal.
In each case, the writer didn’t understand the need to meet certain genre conventions or audience expectations, and because of this, has set herself up for failure by creating a novel the agent won’t be able to sell.
Carefully identify your readership and genre, and study up to know what the marketplace standards are for manuscript content and length. Even writers who have done this up front can lose direction somewhere along the way without realizing it. Make sure your compass is steady. Work within those reader and genre expectations, and you’ll help your novel succeed.
So, did your novel turn out to be much longer than what’s typical of its category? (Word counts should be revealed in a query letter, but once in a while I’ll have the full manuscript in hand before I realize the author failed to mention the “light and fluffy” romance is 175,000 words long.) Is the book’s content too mature for its audience? Perhaps your middle-reader novel should actually be a young adult novel, which would require your main character to be a few years older. If you see a reason your book might be outside industry standards and you correct that, it could mean the difference between a no and a yes.
REASON #3: THE STORY LACKS AUTHENTICITY.
Not only must a novel be appropriate for its readership, it also must be smart and authentic enough to appeal strongly to that audience. Errors, false notes and lazy writing will only make agents roll their eyes.
That means if there is humor, it must be memorable and witty. If the book is a medical thriller, then it demands startling twists and mind-blowing science that even a doctor will be impressed with. If a manuscript is set in England, you need real and fresh setting details, not info you could pull out of any guidebook. If the manuscript is YA, then you’d better be up on how teens think and what they do—otherwise, you’ll seem out of touch.
Get smart. Read widely, and be a huge media consumer in all that is related to your topic so your point of view will be on target.
Also, why not go to the source and test out your material to get your details just right? When I was creating Raina, an Indian teen character for my novel Over My Head, I sought out real teenagers living in India who were willing to look over my dialogue and answer my questions. They helped me make Raina convincing and credible. So show your YA manuscript to a plugged-in teen for a fact check. Find a scientist to review your details and “what ifs.” Pull together beta readers who read deeply within your intended genre to make sure your point of view is on target. Challenge yourself to strive for authenticity in even the smallest telling details.
REASON #4: THE MANUSCRIPT FALLS TO PIECES.
Writers spend so much time polishing their opening pages and trying to hook the reader that often they overlook the fact that the rest of the book is messy by comparison. There are typos, dropped plot threads, rambling story lines and tense slips. Even character names start changing. It doesn’t take long before agents will lose patience and simply stop reading.
You may have spit-shined your opening pages, but have you done this for the rest of the book? Don’t be so impatient to start submitting that you cut corners. Obviously your entire manuscript should be free of spelling and grammatical errors. But polishing shouldn’t stop there. Track your story elements for consistency and continuity. Chart each character’s qualities and details so you don’t suddenly change their eye color or hometown. And look closely for leftover story fragments that no longer belong—for instance, a dialogue where characters reference a fight that you’ve cut from the earlier chapters.
REASON #5: IT TAKES YOU TOO LONG TO GET ON WITH IT.
These novels had opening pages that drew me in with lovely imagery, a literary feel, a hint of intrigue or an interesting voice. But when I got the rest of the manuscript, the story never took off and nothing seemed to ever happen—at least, not up to the point where my interest waned and I stopped reading. Lovely elements can hold an agent’s interest for only so long.
First, ask yourself (and beta readers or critique partners, if possible) if you are starting the novel in the right spot. Many manuscripts begin too early in the tale instead of near the story’s inciting incident. Telltale signs are when a character is traveling to where the real story will begin, or waking up and then going through the motions of getting ready.
Next, look closely at your structure. If you don’t already have an outline, take the time to make one now, listing what happens scene by scene in each chapter. Is there something plot-related in every scene? Is the tension sustained? Are your characters taking action? Do the challenges grow? If you can find scenes where those answers are no, it’s probably time to either cut them or make something happen.
REASON #6: THE WRITING LACKS CONFIDENCE.
When a writer doesn’t trust the reader or trust himself, he starts tossing in more and more description, just in case we didn’t understand what we were seeing. He tells us what just happened, or how a character is feeling, even though we could have guessed from the context (and should have been allowed to). Instead of letting the main plotline do the job, he adds more and more elements. There’s suddenly a murder, a heist, a romance, an elf, a ship from outer space, there’s nonstop action. Overwriting can alienate the reader and destroy what promised to be an engrossing tale.
Look for large blocks of prose that might harbor over-telling, and pare these sections down. Especially avoid stating emotions, which are best revealed through actions and reactions. One way to find these culprits is to search for the words feel and felt. When you spot places where you feed readers things like “She felt so angry she wanted to hit him,” demonstrate more confidence in your abilities—and give your readers more credit—by instead writing something along the lines of “She glared at him and clenched her fists. Her sharp nails cut into her palms.”
Also look at your plotlines—are they more complicated than necessary? How many issues does your main character really need to face? If you find you’re resorting to gimmicks just to hold the reader’s interest, less really can be more.
REASON #7: TOO FAMILIAR.
I’m seeking fresh and original books, so predictability is a killer. If I see your twist coming well in advance, then you haven’t chosen a fresh option. Also not so fresh? Manuscripts that are thinly veiled versions of popular series such as Harry Potter or novels such as Fight Club. Relocating the story, renaming the characters, or changing the gender does not an original novel make.
Another side to this “too familiar” coin are the plots that everyone seems to be writing a version of. Example: The woman who is divorced/wronged who starts anew in a ramshackle home by the sea/in the mountains/in a European village and finds love/friendship/her “groove.” Here’s another: The kid who moves in with a strange older relative in a new town and discovers a huge secret.
Follow your own ideas, not knockoffs, and don’t create in a void—know what’s already out there and make sure your own novel stands apart. To avoid obvious plotting, ask yourself if you chose the first idea that came into your head. If so, can you push yourself further and pick perhaps the fourth idea, or even the eighth? Dig deep and you will probably find a new take on something that was just too obvious before.
REASON #8: YOU HAVEN’T MADE ME CARE.
If my attention starts to wander and I’m skimming pages, that’s a bad sign. Another bad sign? If I can put the manuscript down and not feel a nagging urge to pick it up again. When agents aren’t invested in the character or intrigued by the stakes, they’re definitely passing, even if the manuscript is clean and the plot holds together.
Analyze your character’s development. Why do we care about her or at least find her interesting? Do these feelings about her deepen as we learn more? Is what’s happening throughout the novel significant enough? Or is it too trivial, like when a YA novel centers on a teen whose main goal in life is to be on the prom court? While you’re trying to get character and plot details right in your final draft, it’s possible to lose sight of the big picture. Take a step back now and make sure you’re doing all you can to keep your reader plugged in. If not, it’s time to revise before you submit again.
REASON #9: DISAPPOINTING PAYOFF.
If the payoff in the book doesn’t justify the read, then I’m going to feel cheated. If I’m flying through the pages of a thriller, you bet I want it to culminate in breathless action and a shocking twist. If I’m engrossed in a heartfelt coming-of-age story, of course I’m expecting deep emotion, perhaps pain, followed by satisfying triumph. If someone has been searching for her mother her whole life, then when that mother finally appears, it should definitely be handled in more than one paragraph! If I finish your manuscript thinking, That’s it? Really?—even if you had me up to that point—it’s ultimately a no from me.
Determine what is fueling your story’s engine—what most keeps your reader engaged. Now look closely at the climactic moments. Do you answer the book’s big question in a satisfying way? For example, if the book is about a guy and girl falling in love but being kept apart, then, when they finally get together, is this moment surprising and so wonderful it’s nearly heartbreaking? Do you let readers linger a bit in that heartfelt moment? Or do you rush right past the scene to a quick resolution? Ask yourself if you’re rewarding your reader for sticking with your story. If you realize you could do better, you’ve still got work to do.
REASON #10: IT’S JUST NOT STRONG ENOUGH.
This is the hardest book for me to reject. The author has done so many things correctly, including creating a plot that kept me reading until the end. Yet for reasons I have a hard time qualifying, I’m not jumping out of my chair and dashing to the phone to call with an offer for representation. The problem is, I’m not looking for a good book. I’m looking for an amazing book—something that challenges me or astonishes me with its brilliance. Agents go to bat for their clients’ projects with big commercial publishers and well-established smaller presses, both of which are extremely competitive markets. If we don’t feel dazzled by your novel, then we won’t feel confident that a top editor will be motivated enough by it to offer a deal.
If the feedback you’re getting gives you the sense that your story is good, but might not be great, it’s time to do some soul-searching. What is your novel’s strength? See if you can find a way for that strength to be heightened to make readers sit up and take notice. If it’s plot driven, can you imagine ways your plot could be even more innovative, more engaging? If it’s character driven, could you make the character more memorable? If it’s an emotional read, are you hitting all the high and low notes in a remarkable way? If the novel is literary, are your images and language and observations as outstanding as you can make them?
Whatever your novel’s special element may be, strive to make the element even stronger as the book progresses. Do this, and you’ll be much more likely to finish as strong as you started.
In my experience, these are generally the most common reasons a full manuscript doesn’t secure an offer. Remember, though, that another agent might see a novel I just rejected and find it perfect. So don’t overreact to each rejection and immediately start revising your work. However, if you continue to have your requested full manuscript rejected again and again, do consider these 10 points.
You might even find that more than one of these reasons applies to your work. That happened to me. Looking back to my old manuscript The Time Passage, I can now see a bit of overwriting (No. 6) and that it wasn’t quite a standout novel yet (No. 10). Perhaps if I’d applied the suggested fixes, that manuscript would be in bookstores instead of just sitting on my shelf gathering dust. Hmm … perhaps it’s time to get busy and dust it off!
Keep these 10 common flaws in mind, and instead of getting those “It has merit, but …” emails, just maybe you’ll have agents diving for their phones, eager to make “the call” and offer you representation. And who knows? Maybe one of those agents will be me.
Marie Lamba (marielamba.com) is a literary agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency (jdlit.com) and author of the YA novels What I Meant …, Over My Head and Drawn.