Has this happened to you? You finish a story and polish it to a shine, compose your cover letter, send the package off to an editor, and wait through an agonizing time period, only to get that form letter saying thanks, but we’ll pass. Your book was rejected.
It’s happened to me. More times than I care to think about. One thing writers who want to publish learn right off is the pain of rejection, and my best piece of advice is to get used to it. There is life after rejection, and you’ve got to be willing to jump up and go at it again. And again.
3 Reasons Editors Reject Books—And How to Fix Them
As I’ve worked with editors, I’ve learned a few things about what they look for in a manuscript. Today I’m sharing three of the top deal breakers—those things editors hate to see—and giving you some ideas about how to avoid getting that rejection letter.
1. Bad beginnings
A strong opening is critical to grabbing the editor’s attention and giving your story a hope of making the first cut. Many writers overlook the importance of setting, leaving the editor to swim in a sea of uncertainty, unable to visualize the scene. Another rookie mistake is diving into the action before giving the editor a reason to care about what happens.
In his book The First Five Pages, A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out Of The Rejection Pile, Noah Lukeman says of the reader: “They’ve secretly made up their mind after page 5, and 99 percent of the time, they’re not going to change it.” First impressions are fast and enduring. Use that to your advantage and don’t let it be your stumbling block.
Solution: Elements of a promising first page
To paraphrase Hamlet—the story’s the thing. If you can tell a fabulous story, readers can forgive a few grammar errors and a less-than-polished style. But if you don’t come out the starting gate with a skillful opening, editors won’t stick around for the story. Here are a few tips for a well-crafted beginning:
- Use manuscript format! I’ve heard many editors express amazement over how often writers neglect to submit in proper format. It’s almost a guarantee your story will sink back into the slush pile if you ignore this rule.
- Submit clean copy. Do whatever you need to do—ProWritingAid, friends and family, professional editing—to present the editor with a manuscript free of errors. If you’re sloppy on page one, they’ll expect you to be sloppy throughout.
- Establish setting as soon as possible. This doesn’t mean you need to catalog every detail in the opening paragraph, but you must give enough for the reader to envision the scene, and let the rest unfold as the story moves along.
- Introduce the point of view character immediately, because nothing happens without them. Everything in the story should be filtered through that character, so until they’re in the picture, nothing happens. Nothing is seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted, experienced, or reacted to.
- Use sensory and character-specific details. Remember, you need to pull the reader into your POV character’s head, and this is how you do it.
- Give the editor a reason to care about your character and the desire to know what happens next.
- Read the story out loud before you submit. Good prose has a rhythm and falls easy on the ear. Learn a few things about euphonics and how to use it.
2. Shoddy story structure
I’m a fan of the Story Grid podcast. The host, Tim Grahl, opens every show by admitting: “I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works.” Amen, brother. Aren’t we all?
Here’s an analogy I often use with my students. You may have a box full of spectacular Christmas lights and ornaments. Let’s liken those to all that good stuff I mentioned above—setting, character, details, good grammar, and so on. But without a solid underlying structure to put them on, all you have is a shapeless pile of beautiful ornaments.
Story structure is like a Christmas tree—it provides the foundation everything else rests on.
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration…”
Am I making my point? Without a sound structure, your story is liable to fold under an editor’s scrutiny. Use an outline; make a blueprint.
Why? Because stories that engage and satisfy hit certain points that are hardwired into our DNA. Constructing your story with a master plan will help ensure you hit those targets effectively.
Solution: Some pointers for successful story-building
In her book Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, long-time editor Jessica Page Morrell writes:
“I realize that not everyone can outline or plan their fiction before they write. Some people simply need to write in order to discover their stories. . . . But if you don’t know why you’re writing in scenes or creating plot points, you’ll muddle along and end up with a lot of words, but those words won’t add up to a story.”
Here are a few tips you can use to help structure your story:
- Start on the brink of change, that moment right before your character’s world shifts underfoot.
- Establish your character, in a setting, with a problem.
- Send your character through several try/fail cycles, escalating the difficulties with each one.
- Let your character fail. Or succeed, with strings attached that make it worse than failure.
- Feature a climactic scene that includes the final try/fail episode. This is where your character finally succeeds. Or possibly fails, but with strings attached that make it feel right to the reader.
- Don’t forget the ending! Editors I’ve spoken with have mentioned their surprise over how many writers neglect to tie up the loose ends and let their story fully resolve.
- Focus on scene work. Learn how to write an effective scene and craft accordingly.
- Give your characters motivations that make sense and behavior that’s appropriate.
3. A lack of suspense
Suspense is what keeps the reader turning those pages. The same applies to that editor who’s just picked your manuscript off the slush pile. If you haven’t created suspense in your story, brace yourself for that rejection letter.
“We establish a character and set up a scenario where a monstrous event could occur if the character isn’t able to control or settle or deduce the situation. . . . This develops both a sense of anticipation (I know it’s going to happen, what can I do to protect myself?) and dread (if it happens, I’ll die!).”
Solution: The elements of suspense
Imagine watching a basketball game without knowing the rules. The action on the court would be meaningless and lack excitement. Likewise, you need to provide a way for your readers (including that editor) to follow the rising stakes and keep score. And it really ups the ante if you attach a timer to that scoreboard.
Here are a few methods you can use to create suspense in your story:
- Plant a question and delay the answer.
- Let readers know there’s a secret that must be discovered.
- Give your reader something to worry about and remind them about it occasionally.
- Give your characters tough choices to agonize over and stretch out the time.
- Make things go from bad to worse.
- Remember that suspense is proportionate to the character’s desire.
- Don’t forget to include some surprises, as well as suspense.
Don’t Let the Deal Breakers Break You
You put a lot of time and effort into your writing. Make sure you do all you can to make your stories stand out to an editor and get you beyond the rejection pile. It’s worth it!
One last very important thing to remember: opinions among editors vary wildly. If your book was rejected by one editor, that doesn’t mean another editor might not love it. I’ve seen it happen many times. Do your best work and send it out into the world. And if it comes back with a rejection letter . . .
Send it out again.
Ready to put your best foot forward and weather the response, whatever it may be? Have any experiences with editors and rejected books you’d like to share? Tell us about it in the comments.
Since the opening of your story is so vital to its success with an editor, it’s worth some extra effort. Editor Shawn Coyne recommends writing several different versions of key scenes so you can work through various ideas for how it should play out and pick your best option.
Using the opening scene from your work in progress, write an alternate version. Use a different technique (here's a list of some of my favorites) or change up the setting or dialogue. Keep in mind the deal breakers discussed in the article.
If you don’t want to use your WIP, choose the opening scene from any book and write a new version.
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.