Eight reasons to reject a manuscript

I’ve been thinking recently about my various reasons for rejecting manuscripts, and I thought it might be a vaguely useful thing for me to blog about. I know plenty of agents have written posts like this one already, but everyone’s reasons are slightly different, so I see no harm in adding mine to the pile. So, here are my top reasons for rejecting a manuscript, from most common to least common:

– It didn’t draw me in. This is by far the most common one, and also the one that’s most annoying when you’re trying to include helpful feedback in your rejection emails. I’m sorry…there was nothing wrong with it, but…I just don’t care about these characters. I am not interested in their dilemma. I didn’t want to read further. I am sensitive to the fact that this, like all my other reasons for rejection, is highly subjective, but if you get this kind of feedback from more than one agent it is probably time to think about where you’re going wrong with your opening chapters.

– Not enough attention to worldbuilding. This is a huge one for me. I actually didn’t realise until I became an agent that good, unusual, immersive worldbuilding is really, really important to me, and also relatively hard to find in the slush pile. So often I request a manuscript based on a really good, intriguing query, and then discover that while the plot might be exciting enough, it’s set in the kind of bland faux-mediaeval-European Fantasyland in which I spent far too much time in my teenage years, which has very little in it that is of interest to me and often seems to suck interest out of the rest of the book. And it’s not just a problem for high fantasy, either – I’ve read plenty of historical fiction that feels like a costume drama, and plenty of steampunk that’s all shiny gears and top hats and no grit, no darkness, no actual punk. Give me a world I can climb into and walk around in.

– The gender/racial politics made me sad. If you have one lady on your pirate crew and you describe her as ‘feisty’, we are not going to get along (if you are reading this blog after I have rejected your feisty-lady-pirate manuscript and you think this point is specifically about your manuscript, please rest assured that it is not. There have been many manuscripts that fit this description). See also, if you have one non-white character and you describe their appearance and general personality in a way that is markedly different from all the other characters (‘chocolate skin’ and all the rest of it). Also I am 100% serious about not representing anything that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. If you think I am silly for insisting on this, then I invite you to submit to one of the many, many agents who does not have this rule.

– The writing made me sad. Good, smooth, confident writing is important, obviously. I have fairly high standards in this area – an awkward or overly flowery writing style sets my teeth on edge and makes it very difficult for me to keep reading.

– I forgot that I don’t really like this subgenre. You sent me such a good query that I temporarily forgot I’m really not into urban fantasy/military SF/romance of any kind/whatever – or I thought this one sounded so great that maybe would be the exception to the rule, and then it turned out that it wasn’t. Sorry.

– What happened to the plot? This is a surprisingly common one with science fiction and fantasy, the opposite of ‘not enough attention to worldbuilding’ above. When an author writes a world they’re really in love with, sometimes they want to tell readers all of the cool things about it all at once, and the story stops being a story and just becomes a list of things that happened in their really cool world. This is the one that can sometimes break my heart – I’m in love for the first few chapters, and then I realise this manuscript isn’t actually going anywhere and I have to give up on it.

– It was perfect, but not perfect for me. These are manuscripts I genuinely believe are great and will appear in bookshops one day, but I am not the one who can get them there – there’s a trope I don’t like or a character I would want to change or a subplot I know is commercially appealing but that I personally find bothersome for one reason or another. When I get one of these I try to forward the manuscript on to one of my colleagues, if I think it’ll be more up their street than mine. I only take on books I believe in 100%. It’s easier for all of us that way.

– The things I like about this book are not the things you like about this book. I suppose this is a subset of the previous one, but a bit more specific, and something I personally find harder to deal with: it really boils down to a selfish wish for the author to have written the book that I wanted them to write. I love your mythology but I hate your fixation on romance, or I love your subplots but I wish you’d made them the main plot, or I love your characters but I don’t like what you do with them. I could offer to work with you on the book, but I don’t because I know it would result in sad times for both of us, with you pulling one way and me pulling the other.

This isn’t to say that I’m looking for perfection from any of the manuscripts that arrive in my inbox. I put a lot of work into editing, and I love that feeling of reading a great manuscript and knowing exactly how to make it better. But there has to be something there to start with: a manuscript I really believe in, and a writer who has roughly the same vision for the book as I do. For these reasons, I think the most fixable problem in this list is probably ‘what happened to the plot’ – it’s a lot easier to tell somebody to focus on their story arc than it is to tell them to make their world more interesting, or write better female characters. It’s also, I think, the least subjective of these reasons. If I can’t follow (or even discern) the main plot of your manuscript, I can be fairly sure that other agents are going to have the same problem, which means I can be confident that my feedback is going to be useful.

So, there we go: my eight top reasons for rejecting manuscripts. I’m sorry – I really don’t like doing it, but it has to be done. Keep an eye on the kind of feedback you’re getting, revise if necessary and have faith that the perfect agent for you is out there. And, er, if you are a ‘what happened to the plot’ person, feel free to resubmit to me once you’ve got a plot.

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17 Responses to Eight reasons to reject a manuscript

  1. I recently received a “didn’t draw me in” comment from an agent. I’ve revised my first few pages to try to make the draw to the protagonist stronger, but, alas, it may be a lost cause. Maybe nobody really cares about him anyway. No matter. To quote the Foo Fighters, “done, done, on to the next one.”

    • Lydia says:

      I’m sorry to hear that. I always think it must be such an annoying bit of feedback to get, because it doesn’t give you anything really concrete to fix. Hopefully you have friends and family who can be persuaded to read and critique your opening chapters – or, as you say, just move on to the next one. Good luck!

  2. katz says:

    Your Bechdel Test rule makes me happy. I’m always astounded when books fail to pass; 300 pages and don’t talk to each other even once?

    • Lydia says:

      I know, right – it’s actually quite a low bar! The more manuscripts I see that don’t pass, the louder and more insistent I get about it.

  3. Kerry says:

    (if you are reading this blog after I have rejected your feisty-lady-pirate manuscript and you think this point is specifically about your manuscript, please rest assured that it is not. There have been many manuscripts that fit this description)

    This made me laugh. A sad laugh.

  4. daphnele says:

    “The writing made me sad.” : I read that and thought: well that’s certainly a kind way of putting it.

  5. I really like your list, but call me cynical — isn’t “I like this but it’ll be a very hard sell in the current market?” up there somewhere?

    • Lydia says:

      That’s a really good question, but I can honestly say that at this stage in my career I have never turned a manuscript down for that reason alone. If I get that lit-up, can’t-stop-thinking-about-it, racing-to-finish-it feeling from a manuscript, I will sign it no matter what it’s about – I believe that if it makes me feel that way, there’s a good chance it will make a few other people feel that way as well.

      I might, however, occasionally say ‘I like this but it’ll be a very hard sell in the current market’ when I really mean ‘it didn’t draw me in, *and also* it’ll be a very hard sell in the current market’. Sometimes I think the majority of rejections from agents (and editors – so I’ve been on both sides of this!) are really just different ways of saying ‘I liked it but I didn’t love it’.

      • Once upon a time I thought “I didn’t love it” was so unfair. Right up there with “I can almost always tell within two or three paragraphs if a story is for me.” (With books it was two or three pages.)

        Then I edited three original anthologies of women’s fantasy and science fiction. I read close to a thousand stories and bought a total of 46. The majority were at least competent, and many were more than that. Finally I got it. What distinguished those 46 from the others was that I loved them, and yes, with a little practice I could tell within a couple of paragraphs whether a story was a serious contender.

        It’s still hard to explain to writers though!

  6. Lydia says:

    Yes, exactly! It sounds like something we’ve made up as a reason to reject people, but it’s so true!

  7. Pingback: On the books I represent, and the books I do not. | Lydia Moëd

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  9. Mahale Thedaccah says:

    Hmmmm, have to re-think the romantic scenes I added to my ms. after receiving feedback suggesting it needed more.

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