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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Five Reasons I Reject Manuscripts

It's apparent the writer hasn't actually read books in the genres in which she is writing. 

If you have ever been tempted to think, "My first love is horror, but I'll write sunny children's picture books because I heard an agent say that was the hot market now," slap some sense into yourself, please.

I've had writers tell me they have never read a YA book, but they are writing YA because YA sells. The same goes for romance. They don't like romance—they think it's rather silly and they are sure they can write a silly romance in two weeks with one hand tied behind their backs.

Hear me: When you hold genre books in disdain but figure you'll knock out a few to support yourself while you work on your literary novel, it will show in your writing. I'm not saying you can't write a romance while you work on your 800-page fantasy. I'm saying if you want to write romance, you need to read and understand romance.

The writing is full of grammatical errors.

Has anyone ever read your stuff and thought that English was your second language?

I hate to write this because I am sure that tomorrow or next week, I'll be scanning this very post and I'll find typos and/or other errors. Every time I get snarky about someone else's shortcomings, God allows me to fall flat on my face. Nevertheless, I have to say it: If you can't write well, in a technical sense, you need to hire an editor. Pay attention to your crit partners, learn from the things they mark, and if you still can't figure out how to stop switching between present and past tense, hire an editor.

 The writing feels wooden.

Vary your sentences. While writing, you should vary your sentences. Before sending a proposal to an agent or editor, read over your manuscript, checking to see if you've varied your sentence structure. Varied sentences make the work more interesting to read.

And...slavishly following rules makes our writing feel wooden, too. 

Too much showing.

He went to the car. He opened the door. He sat in the driver's seat. He turned the key in the ignition. The engine roared to life.

This is the kind of writing we get when we pay too much attention to the rule about showing instead of telling.  

Just tell me he hopped into the car and sped out of the drive. I don't need to see him turn the key—I know how to start a car. Don't describe the expressions on a person's face or the feelings of despair in his gut so often. Sometimes it's OK to say she was happy instead of painting the wide smile that filled her face like the sun coming over the mountains.

 I don't care about what happens to the characters.

If the writing is clean and flows well, I still will reject a story if I don't care about the characters.

I don't mean to say I dislike the characters so I turn the books down. It's that I don’t like or dislike them. I simply don't care about them one way or the other.

This is kind of a personal thing.

For me to care about a character, she must be vulnerable, smart, and conflicted. She also must be willing to act to make her life better. A character with a good sense of humor is attractive to me. And a character that is humble. I really love characters that are generous and suffering unjustly. Give me Cinderella, any day. Sweet and hardworking, and her troubles were not of her own making. She's been wronged and I want to see her get her own back.

But I don't think we're all attracted to the same characters. I could not read Gone With the Wind, but look at how many people cared about what happened to Scarlett.

What about you? What makes you automatically reject a book and what attracts you to a character? 

photo credit: davemc500hats via photopin cc

Sally Apokedak
Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's in the process of of building a dynamite list of authors. She is also active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.


  1. Sally, I love this post. I think writers frequently forget the basics or go to an extreme with a rule (like show don't tell). It's always a good thing to see the basics emphasized!

  2. Thanks, Edie.


  3. Loved this post. To often authors forget the most important thing: making it enjoyable to read.

  4. Love your sense of humor! It's nice to see some guidelines spelled out. Thanks!

    1. Thanks. I'm always relieved when people get my sense of humor.

  5. I'm likely to toss a book if a female author makes a male character sound like a female when writing from his POV. Men and women simply think differently. If you write in the POV of the opposite gender, please ask a truly objective and frankI person from that gender to check your work.

    1. Good point, Rick! I totally agree. It's one of my pet peeves, too.

      Pam Zollman

    2. I agree with you, too, Rick. In fact, I've picked up some of my most valuable tips from a few of those kind of people who were frank... but not in the least bit objective!

      Great post, Sally.

  6. Sally, thanks for these fair, gracious, and most clear tips, especially both from an agent's and writer's perspective.

  7. Thanks for comments and the shares!

  8. Great tips. I'm more of a Scarlett girl myself. I like spunky MCs who are a little (or a lot!) bad and have things they don't even realize they need to work on. Then circumstances/people either push them to change, or they stay much the same (like Scarlett)...yet you still feel bad for them. But they feel like people I've really known along the way. And there are some Cinderella types out there, too!

    1. BTW--did I mention how I love that you loathe too much SHOWING!?? Usually we hear it the other way around. So many excellent books (C.S. Lewis' included) TELL quite a bit, but you feel so immersed in the storyline, it flows.

  9. Great post, Sally! I shared it on The Writer's Plot Facebook page.

    Pam Zollman

    (I loved GONE WITH THE WIND, but then Margaret Mitchell was a great aunt and I think it was against the law in my family NOT to love it. LOL! I too loved Scarlett's spunk, but I also loved Melanie and her sweet ways.)

  10. Even though I do not write fiction, I appreciated all your comments, but especially the admonition about grammar etc. So often this is what can keep a writer from publication. Good post. Thanks. Clella

    1. Thanks Clella!

      It's true that even for nonfiction, all of these reasons for rejection apply. Nonfiction writers still need to write for a recognized market and still need to vary their sentences and still need to make me care--if not for the characters, then for the writer and for the topic.

  11. 'I've had writers tell me they have never read a YA book, but they are writing YA because YA sells. '

    THIS. Yes, this. Oh. My. I am SO tired of finding books that say, "Author Name is (established credentials here) in the adult market, this is his/her first YA novel." Nine times out of ten it is gag-worthy. I write YA because I *read* YA. I write fantasy because I *read* fantasy. It is one of my biggest pet peeves when authors want to jump on a bandwagon--and I honestly point my fingers at some of the publishers out there because I'm quite sure they are encouraging some of this by asking established authors to cross over to other genres or at least letting the authors do it rather than take chances on debut authors.

    Good for you for turning authors down for this!!

    Anyway, awesome post overall--love how you worked examples of your points in there, including giving the article great voice :).

  12. I write historical fiction and work very hard to get even the smallest details straight. My pet peeve, aside from grammatical and spelling errors, is a novel filled with inaccuracies, anachronistic language (in one I read recently,the 1850's era heroine lamented her lack of a role model, a term that first came into common use in the 1970's), and set in a vague time period that makes it harder to ground myself in the story. Authors who want to write historicals owe it to readers (and to themselves) to get the facts, the language, the time period, straight.History is often messy and incomplete and we can't know everything for sure, but to the extent possible, we ought to care about this stuff.


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