5 Reasons Why Your Story or Novel Gets Rejected, Part 1

Since opening up Falstaff Books, I’ve been dealing with more submissions than ever. This is awesome, because submissions, particularly unsolicited submissions (or “slush”) is how we build anthologies and a catalog. I, just like every editor and publisher I know, am excited every time I open a query letter and start to read the attachment. I want to find the next amazing book or story, because if I publish it, not only do I get to help bring an amazing book to life, but we all get paid. Remember, a reputable publisher doesn’t make any money unless you make money. Unfortunately, most of what comes in on submission gets rejected, and I want to touch on some of my personal top reasons that your story or novel gets rejected. Some of these are pet peeves, and in a world where my time is incredibly limited, it only takes hitting one hot button to get your book or story rejected. So here, in reverse order, are John’s (and John’s alone) Top 5 Reasons I Will Reject Your Book or Story. I’ll bring you Part 2 next week, because this is running long.

5) Bad Timing – sometimes you honestly just get screwed, and you submit a story or novel (for here on out, I’m just going to call them books) that is too similar to something we just acquired, or too much like something else on the market. For example, if you have a great idea for an urban fantasy series about a male wizard for hire in Indianapolis named Barry Teasden who has a spirit trapped inside a gargoyle on his desk, I’m probably going to pass. Frankly, if you have any kind of urban fantasy detective story, I’m probably going to pass unless it’s 100% goddamn amazing, and there’s something to set it apart from any of the dozens of urban fantasy detective series out there. Including the ones written by the publisher.

But a lot of times you can’t know that we’ve just bought a story in the same genre as yours, or have something on the docket that hits many of the same check marks. For example, it would be hard to know that we aren’t the place to send your “changeling travels to Fairy in search of her absentee parent – hilarity does not ensue” novel, because Changeling’s Fall hasn’t released yet. But it will come out late summer/early fall, and it is the first in a series of four novels about that set of characters. So that’s great for us, because it’s an amazing book, but it’s not great for writers of similar books, because that market is now closed to them.

4) Didn’t Follow the Guidelines – When I worked in the lighting business, I was a middle manager. I had a dozen people that reported to me, and I was responsible for hiring and firing them. One thing I was always looking for in people was a college degree. Not that I thought you needed a degree to do the job, because you certainly don’t. But because having a degree was a shortcut to show an employer that you are capable of sticking with one task for a long time and completing it. Submission guidelines are the same thing.

What am I saying? I’m saying that I’m perfectly capable of quickly reformatting your submission into the typeface, font size, and spacing that is easiest for me to read. Take me less than a minute. And that’s not the point. The point is – are you someone who pays attention to detail, or are you a pain the ass? Do you understand that this is a business relationship, and as such there are ways to do things and ways not to do things, or are you a special friggin’ snowflake that I’m going to have to remind to do everything and hound about missed deadlines?

Submission guidelines are a test, like Van Halen’s green M&Ms. The band never gave a single shit about the color of the M&Ms, but a venue that took the time to either adjust the tour rider to take out the stupid line about the green M&Ms, or took the time to pick out the green M&Ms, was a venue that was paying attention to details. And that’s a venue that’s probably going to have the right safety equipment, the right number of backstage passes for family and guests, and won’t have food in catering that the band is allergic to. A writer who follows the submission guidelines to the letter is probably a writer that will respond to edits quickly and succinctly, will get their shit turned in on time, and generally will behave like a professional.

So follow the goddamn guidelines.

3) Book or Story needs work – Nobody’s first draft is worth a damn. Not mine, not yours, not Neil friggin’ Gaiman’s. So polish your work before you send it out for someone to potentially purchase. Have someone help you polish it. There are critique groups everywhere in the world, including online critique groups for people who live in rural areas and don’t have enough people close by. Use one.

Note – I am not suggesting that you pay an editor to polish a book that you want to sell to a publisher. That’s what we do. It’s our job to handle that level of editorial. But I am saying make friends with writers who are where you are in your career, and work together so that all of you get better. Having someone to put fresh eyeballs on your work will help with things like homonyms and words that either aren’t spelled like you think they’re spelled or words that do not mean what you think they mean.

Here are a few things that will kill the submission before it really gets going. Remember, these are things I don’t care for, but they aren’t universal. They’re pretty close, though. Eliminate these things from your storytelling and it will help you make more money as a writer.

Passive Voice – People need to do things, not have things done to them. Brutus needs to stab Caesar, we don’t need to hear that Caesar was stabbed by Brutus. If your POV character keeps having things done to her, then maybe she shouldn’t be your POV character. Or maybe you should write from a closer POV, so we can understand her reaction to these things better. But get rid of passive voice.

“To Be” – It’s really not to be. The more instances of “was, were, are” you can eliminate from your writing, the more immediate you can make it. Use strong, active verbs to tell the reader what’s going on in the scene. I wasn’t standing by the bar watching the room, I stood by the bar watching the room. I am not sitting at my desk writing a blog post, I sit at my desk writing a blog post. The various conjugations of “to be” distance the reader from the action and reduce the immersion of the character into their surroundings. It blunts the edges of your writing, makes it dull.

Adverbs – You get one per every 50,000 words. You can have them back when you’ve published a million words of fiction. Don’t argue with me, just cut out the annoyingly ever-present and ridiculously repetitive adverbs.

That’s enough for Part 1. I’ll come back next week with the next two pieces of the puzzle – Your Story Starts in the Wrong Place, and You Aren’t a Good Enough Writer (Yet). I figure if these didn’t piss everybody off, those certainly will!


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