In talking to editors involved in the submission process, I’ve gleaned some things guaranteed to keep you from being published. For those of you who say you want to get published but actually don’t, I’ve put together a list of things that will keep you in the reject pile.
Sending the query/synopsis:
There you are, ready to send your book to publishers. If you’re actually just doing this as a lark, do the following:
1. Don’t follow submission guidelines. You might think a publisher with intricate submission guidelines is just being officious and isn’t really going to care if you bend the rules. But it’s the number-one query-killer for editors I talked to. Why? Because it’s a test. It’s a weed-out strategy. If you can’t or won’t follow directions, it tells them what it would be like to work with you throughout the editing process. It also tells the publisher how professional you are, and that will reflect on the house later if you are accepted. If an author can’t follow directions, like full synopsis instead of partial synopsis, chances are this author will be difficult to work with in editing.
2. Brag. “The most unique novel you’ll read this year.” “There’s nothing quite like it.” “An important work.” Cringe. Keep it simple and direct. Think about what’s different about your book and describe that. Don’t tell the editor it’s unique. Let the description show the uniqueness. You’re not a used-car salesman.
Acquisition editors especially hate when you compare your book to a famous book, unless you’re saying “in the vein of.” If you say, “the next Harry Potter!” or “If you loved ______, you’ll really love my book,” you’ve set yourself some high expectations. Let’s face it, your book probably isn’t better than Harry Potter. It just seems really egotistical to say “my book is better than a book that sold billions of copies and has had movies made from it.”
3. Use trite language. “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry …” “In a world where …” If you’ve heard it in a movie trailer, don’t repeat it. You’re supposed to be impressing the house with something unique, and you’re stealing from movie trailers? They have to wonder, if you’re using such trite language in the query, how bad is the book?
4. Use bad grammar. The most important single piece of paper you’ll ever write — the query — (okay, next to your will and stuff) and you can’t be bothered to check, recheck, have your mom check, have your critique partner check, have random people on the Kindle or Absolute Write boards check your grammar? How bad do you want this?
5. Don’t spell-check. It’s a single piece of paper! Three paragraphs! You can’t be bothered to spell-check the stupid thing?
6. Address the query to the name of someone at a different company. Okay, no one would be stupid enough to do that. Except me. Yeah, I did that. I was young and stupid. I’m old now and slightly less stupid.
If they’ve asked for a partial or full:
That’s a big compliment in itself. Now, if you’ve got cold feet and you don’t really want to move to the next step, do the following:
1. Use trite situations. If you’ve heard it a million times before, think how many times the editor/agent/publisher has heard it. One fellow editor mentioned mirror scenes, and I had to laugh. I have a mirror scene in my book. I’ve seen mirror scenes in lots of published books. It’s such an easy way for a character to describe himself to the reader without saying, “Hi, reader, I’m 5’10”, blonde …” But now I think, “Why didn’t I notice how overdone that is?” Or the opening scene where the heroine is running through a forest. Or any dream scene. Before you send your book, ask yourself if you’ve seen certain scenes and situations in published books. If so, do it with a twist.
2. Send a book with a weak start. After all, the acquisition editor has nothing better to do and will say, “Oh, it’s a little slow to start, but I’m sure when she hits her stride, it will get better.” The first five pages are the most important pages of the book. You have to hook the editor now, and hook potential readers later. Start with a bang. Start with a shock. Grab their attention. Let them know what the story is about — if they don’t know within five pages, it’s a pass.
3. Don’t use a strong voice from the git-go. A great book has a distinct voice. Maybe it’s a southern-fried accent (or pristine British). Maybe it’s quirky word choice. Remember the movie Juno? Now that was voice. A lot of writers develop that voice as they write, but they don’t bother to go back and make sure the voice in the beginning is just as strong.
4. Load the beginning with backstory. Get the reader into the story before you tell them the character’s life story or the history of the world. Some editors say they know within the first few paragraphs whether they’re going to accept or reject. So don’t waste those paragraphs with, “And then when she was five, she …” Sprinkle that stuff in. Later.
5. Let the book sag in the middle. As long as you hook the reader and then finish strong, who cares about the middle, right? No. Tighten up that middle. Make sure you don’t have extraneous scenes that don’t move the story along. Make sure you don’t lose focus and intensity and energy. Or the editor will never make it to your strong finish.
6. Lose your focus on technical errors. The first three chapters are usually the cleanest chapters of the book. Why? Because that’s what submission editor’s often ask for! You’ve sent it out, gotten feedback, rewritten, sent it out again, gotten more feedback, polished, corrected … Make sure the rest of the book is just as strong. One acquisitions editor told me she usually sees those errors start to creep in at about the 100th page. If she doesn’t see passive voice, stilted dialog, bad word usage, cliques, and familiar plot points, then she’s probably not going to. That book suddenly jumps to the head of the line.
And finally, if the editor returns the book and you want to ensure they put your name on their bulletin board with the word “DON’T”:
1. Send an email insulting their taste, education, or mother. Tell them why they’re wrong.
2. Get on the writers boards and say mean, snarky things. (They do read that stuff, guys.)
3. Send an email asking for a full-fledged tutorial about what you did wrong. People who do that are the reason acquistions people send very general rejections. If they say anything not general, be flattered and don’t repay their kindness with “exactly what should I change?” requests.
4. Rush a revise and resubmit request (another test). Don’t feel you have to get it back to the editor within the week or he’ll forget you. If you rush the R&R, you tell the editor you haven’t done a thorough job of revising. They’ll reject without even reading. Here they gave you a second chance and you didn’t give it thought and consideration. An R&R isn’t for quick fixes — those would be fixed in editing. If your book was accepted. Remember, an R&R is not an acceptance. Don’t get your hopes up too much. An R&R means you have one or two elements that would be too time consuming to fix in edits. So be flattered they made the offer and take the time to do it right. Take the time to address every single one of the editor’s concerns, and you’ll be an author he wants to work with.