Why Novels Get Rejected
Many writers have asked us this simple question: “Why did my book get rejected?”
There are two ways you can answer this question: either you, the author, made some mistakes with your manuscript or the editors, publishers, and literary agents of the world are all wrong.
I sincerely hope it’s that you made some mistakes, because if the problem lies within you, then the solution lies within you too. If every literary agent and editor in the world is messed up, there’s nothing you can do about that. But if you made some mistakes, you can correct them, improve your writing skills, and become successful as an author if you’re willing to put in the effort and time it takes to learn and grow as a writer.
Our editors have put together their list of the most common reasons why novels get rejected.
Before you come to the conclusion once and for all that the acquisitions editor just couldn’t see the genius in your work or had a bad day, consider if you might have made some of the following mistakes in your manuscript.
Point of View
Most people don’t realize how powerful point of view is in engaging readers—or confusing them, if done poorly. When we are truly inside your character from their point of view (not just watching him or her from an outside perspective) we develop that deep emotional connection that creates a great reading experience. When you feel like everything that’s happening to the main character is happening to you, you’ll be deeply engaged in the story, and that’s exactly how you want your readers to feel.
If readers love your characters, they’ll follow them anywhere, even through a mediocre plot. In order for readers to fall in love with your characters, they have to identify with them, and that process will happen much faster if you use point of view correctly throughout your story.
Use these questions below as a checklist to help you ensure you’re not making point of view (POV) mistakes in your writing.
- Are you only in one character’s head per scene?
- Are you, the author, telling the reader what is going on instead of letting the characters show it themselves?
- Are you using filter words such as saw, heard, knew, thought, believed, realized, felt, etc.? These generally indicate we are not in the character’s head.
- Are you using all five senses to show the character’s experience?
- Are you naming emotions or describing what the character is actually feeling viscerally, emotionally, and mentally?
Do Double Duty
Another big mistake I see is that writers fail to make every action, thought, and word do more than just convey one piece of information. Use every action, thought, and word of your character as an opportunity to show emotion or convey something to us about your character’s personality.
For example, a character simply crossing the room to pick up her phone can tell us a lot. Don’t just tell us, “She went over and got her phone.” Did she stalk? Did she drag her feet? Did she nearly skip? See how each one shows us her mood as well as showing us what she’s doing? And for the phone call. Do her actions convey dread? Excitement? Anger? Make each bit of information you give the reader do double and triple duty, and you won’t have the dreaded flab that must be cut.
Use these questions to make sure your writing is moving the story forward:
- Does each action and piece of dialogue convey more than one bit of information? If it doesn’t, can you improve it or cut it?
- How can each action, movement, or piece of dialogue convey to the reader something deeper about your character?
- In this scene, how can you use action, body language, or dialogue to convey your character’s fears, secret desires, goals, motivation, wounds, and conflicts in addition to what’s already on the page?
Cut the Flab
When we read about what your character is doing, we expect it to mean something. If you tell us she went to the grocery story before going home, there should be a reason I, as the reader, need to know that. Did someone see her there? Did she need to avoid someone, so she forgot the milk? Did that errand delay her arrival at home, so she missed being there when the burglar broke in?
Without meaning, reading about a character’s actions is simply a waste of the reader’s time. You have to show how and why what your characters are doing is meaningful. Otherwise, readers will lose interest in the story.
Every scene in your book should move the story forward.
Just as your words need to do double duty, so do any actions that either appear on stage or are summarized in narrative.
Use these questions below to help you cut the flab from your story:
- For each piece of information, ask, why is this important for the reader to know right now?
- Will this information be important later in the story?
- What action is set in motion in the story because of this information?
- What else can this action tell us?
- What conflict is this action setting up?
- What else could this action be doing to advance the story?
Where to Begin Your Story
One of the most common errors I see is that writers don’t know where to start their story. That also applies to scenes. I often see scenes that flounder a bit in their beginning, giving us too much backstory and information about how we got to this point in time.
Readers don’t need a lot of back story or information to set up a successful scene. They need action and meaning!
Whether you’re a plotter or a seat-of-your-pants writer, you need to know what you’re trying to accomplish in each scene. Scenes can take place close together or farther apart in time, but they should only contain actions that move your story forward.
For example, if it takes five days to travel from Point A to Point B, just end one scene at Point A and start the next scene at Point B unless there’s a good reason why the reader needs to know the details about what happens in between.
If you’re writing a romance and the hero and heroine haven’t spoken in two weeks, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in your next scene explaining what they’ve been doing or why (unless it directly relates to the plot or subplot). You can write something like, “After not hearing from John for two weeks, Jane was surprised to see his number pop up on her phone.”
You could change “surprised” to something that might more closely convey her feelings, like annoyed, irritated, elated, angry, or miffed. We don’t need a long explanation; we need action. So just jump into the action right away. When in doubt, start with the action and add any explanation or transition later if you really need to.
Use these questions to help you write a great beginning for your story and each scene:
- For the beginning of your book, what is the day where everything changed for the main character? How has her world been rocked? Are you starting there?
- Is it clear when and where this scene is taking place?
- Are the stakes clear? What will happen if the character doesn’t take action? What will happen if she does?
- Are you simply relating how your character got from Point A to Point B? Or are you beginning the scene where the vital information starts?
- What is your character’s goal for this scene? What does she need to accomplish or what decision does she need to make?
- Do you have a strong opening line?
When It’s Over, It’s Over
When the purpose of the scene is over, end it immediately. It’s much better to leave your readers wanting more than to linger too long in the scene without a purpose. Think about the purpose (or better, purposes) of each scene. How does it move the plot forward? How does it deepen how well we are getting to know your characters? What questions does it raise that will keep your reader turning pages? When the goal of a scene is accomplished, your scene is done.
If your scene appears to end abruptly, that’s a good thing if it has done its job in moving the story forward. If your scene has done what it was meant to do, readers will be eager to turn the page and start reading the next chapter to find out what happens next.
The problem is that, as writers, we love our characters. They live in our heads, and they can almost seem like our friends. We want to hang out with them and spend time with them. And that’s fine, but do it elsewhere if it’s making your story drag on without meaning and purpose.
Use these questions to help you find the proper place to end each scene:
- Has your character reached her goal from the beginning of the scene? Remember, failure can be a good thing here because it drives readers to turn pages.
- Did your character make the decision she needed to make? If so, that sets up the goal for the next scene.
- Have you conveyed all the information in this scene the reader will need to understand what’s happening in the next scene?
Other Reasons for Rejection
Here are several other reasons why a publisher (TCK or others) might pass on your manuscript:
Publishing a Series
If you’re publishing a series, we will automatically reject your submission if it’s the second or later book in the series. Readers will only buy the second book if they liked the first, so the first book is the most important one to get right. We want to work with you from that first book to make sure each book in the series has a strong base to build on.
For this same reason, if your first book has been published by another company that still holds the copyright, we won’t accept your submission for the second book.
If you’ve already self-published your first book, don’t worry: we still accept self-published books. Just make sure the submission you send in is for the first book in the series.
Not Following Guidelines
If you can’t follow simple submission guidelines, this signals to publishers that you might be difficult to work with while editing. The editing process can take a while, especially if publishers have to spend extra time going over things more than once.
Our submission guidelines clearly outline our expectations for manuscript submissions. In addition, there are formatting issues that could also be a mark against your submission, even if it’s not an immediate rejection:
- Extremely large or tiny font sizes
- Strange or brightly colored text
- Extra spaces between words (if it’s a repeated issue, not just the occasional typo)
- Poorly formatted dialogue
- No chapters, just one long manuscript
- No paragraph breaks, just a wall of text all the way through (this is usually an instant reject)
While formatting issues may not seem like a big deal, things like hard-to-read text can make an editor lose more time and struggle to read your submission.
To make things easier for you, we’ve created a downloadable book submission template that you can use to format your manuscript.
It Just Wasn’t the Right Fit
Sometimes the editor liked your book, but there were several submissions to choose from and another one got selected.
Regardless if this is true for you or not, you can never go wrong improving your writing craft.
What to Do If Your Novel Gets Rejected
If your novel has been rejected by TCK Publishing or another publisher or literary agent, use the information in this article to go back over your writing and revise the sections of your book that need work.
Remember that even bestselling authors like J.K. Rowling received multiple rejection letters, so you’re in good company if your manuscript has been rejected!
Keep working to improve your writing craft and skills, and never give up on your dreams.
P.S. If your novel hasn’t been submitted to TCK Publishing yet, you can submit your manuscript for review on our submission guidelines page.
Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.