Printed from WriteWords -

What is liable to earn you an automatic rejection from an agent?

by  NMott

Posted: Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Word Count: 4914
Related Works: A round-up of synopsis tips • Synopsis Examples • The Covering Letter • 

Straight from the horse's mouth - most of the real examples below were rejected within 2mins of agent/intern picking up the submission.

Top 4 reasons to pass:
Too much exposition/lack of plot.
Technical faults in the prose.
Boring writing style.
Not a genre they represent - although some are known to pass the submission on to the right agent if they think it's great, but without tellng the writer. If the writer reacts badly to their rejection then they will have a quiet word to the other agent and tell them not to bother.

Manuscript is too expository - Basically, expository means all telling, no showing, just writing stuff, without SHOWING us anything.

Biographical novel: wasn't well written enough - long, rambling sentences, loose writing, & stale form. Pass.
[#tip Stale form = using the same sentence opener over and over: "He felt . . . he wondered . . . he decided . . . he moved on . . ."
Loose writing = using conditional helping verbs, weak verbs, and not editing into tight sentences, etc.]

This project = stale writing, but author has an editor already lined up, so off to the agent it goes (with my 'pass' recommendation)

Here's a biography that just sort of walks the reader through the author's life. No voice, no creative writing flair. Pass.

Now a women's fiction that is too expository, and whose 1st pages are so full of backstory that I can't see any plot action. Pass

Here's a cool memoir whose sentences are too run-on to be readable. Also inconsistent tense, which agent hates. Pass.

This paranormal's heroine was so busy gasping, clutching her agonized achy chest, and sighing that I couldn't find the plot. Pass

Self-pubbed author who tried to make it sound like she "has been published." Honesty earns more points than clever evasiveness.
Another author says "I am published" but I Googled them and it was a self pub. Tsk tsk. Never lie - it gets you nowhere.
[#tip, Not always an automatic rejection, but mentioning self-pubbed book definitely doesn't help the submission unless you can also quote sales in the 1000s and a large following on Facebook or blog.]

No idea what genre this is. Maybe the author was trying for quirky literary? I dunno, but confusing readers isn't literary. Pass.

This women's fiction needs more description to set the scene, less exposition (which puts readers to sleep). Pass.

The author of this memoir probably hasn't learned the basic conventions of memoir writing - descriptions, pacing, characters. Pass

A murder mystery whose sentences are soooo long-winded that I feel like I'm holding my breath as I read them. Pass

A women's fiction that is way too-long winded to suck me in to the story. That happens a lot, alas. Pass

This women's fiction is just too lackluster. Author needs creative writing classes to enliven an otherwise cool plot idea. Pass

Dude--shock value via nastiness got you nowhere. I kept the rejection friendly, but still--ew! Pass

And another one:
Ew. I highly doubt that this skeezy dude lit will appeal to the accomplished, type-A female agent I work for. Pass!

And another:
This male author must think that my type-A female agent reps novels that degrade women's bodies. Think again, dude! Pass

Got sucked into a mystery novel. Is looking good so far. Still reading... Nope. Mystery turned out to be too seedy for agent's tastes. She doesn't dig dirty dude lit at all. Pass

Just passed on a novel that bored me so much that I've already forgotten what genre it was

Here's a women's fiction that is so expository that I can barely find any trace of a plot. Pass

This one's too expository. Dulled my eyes to sleep--I kept having to re-read stuff. Pass

This memoir was just someone's journal on paper. Memoir writers still have to be creative writers, not just journalers. Pass.

This women's fiction just isn't compelling. Some characters doing some stuff . . . where's my reason to turn the page? Pass.

This fantasy was written with superlong sentences that hurt my eyes. Tighter writing could save that ms from utter failure. Pass

Pretty sure I rejected this query months ago. But I re-read it just in case--still too many characters lobbed at me all at once. Pass.

This contemporary fiction opened with a scene that took THREE pages for the MC to just get out the door of his house. Yikes! Pass

Whoa. This foodie fiction should not have been written in first person present tense. Did nobody get the tense memo? Pass.

This literary fiction has so much promise! No, wait. Nevermind. Is written in first person present tense (::bangs head on desk::)

Use of first person present tense in this humorous novel makes it feel like a synopsis, not a novel! Also not funny. Pass

This novel is written in 1st person present tense, which doesn't jive with the slow story. Feels all wrong when I read it. Pass

Like spandex, first person present tense is a privilege, not a right. To earn that right: 1st land big book deals & sales numbers.
[This agent just doesn't like 1st person, present tense. It's a marmite writing techinque - some will love it, others hate it - so proceed at your own risk. Only use it if it feels right for the 'voice'; avoid if you think it makes you sound 'writerly', or because 'it's In right now'.
Works best for YA(teen) fiction].

The author of this contemporary novel has some writing talent, but is still raw. Dialogues not realistic at all. Pass.

Argh! Best idea for commercial fiction that I've ever seen, but even a team of editors couldn't fix such poor writing. Pass.
[See, you can't expect them to edit it for you. Especially Don't send first drafts.].

Memoir turned out to be more crude than funny, more melodramatic than poignant. Pass.

This detective novel's overuse of gerundive phrases means the author didn't edit, or he needs creative writing classes. Pass

This murder mystery was rife with gerundive phrase openers and overdone dialogue that killed the narrative. Pass.

Commercial fiction that used way too many conditional helping verbs. Made the narrative drag so painfully. Pass.

Now the memoir is showing some glitches--conditional helping verbs, buried dialogue, and extra prepositional phrases. Pass.
[#Tip. Editing 101: no more than one prepositional phrase per sentence. To do otherwise is a drag on the narrative; reader holds breath!]

Not every dialogue needs a tag. Especially not descriptive tags. It gets repetitive and annoying & that's not good in sample pages. Pass.
[Technical term = Buried dialogue, ie, framing characters' words with too much narrator description so that it doesn't flow. eg.
"What's that?"
"A dog."
"What's that?" she asked with wide eyes. I looked up and exhaled.
"A dog," I said.

Freaking awesome political thriller plot was unfortunately written by an author with too little writing ability. Pass
[#Tip. Go on Smashwords and you'll see tons of great story ideas, let down by bad writing.]

This literary fiction had a great plot idea, but writing wasn't good enough to pull it off. Author needs practice or classes. Pass

This literary fiction has some shockingly glaring tense inconsistencies. Agent & editors would laugh at me for recommending it. Pass

Four gerundive sentence openers within the first paragraph! This novel is a definite pass.

Too much passive voice, too many gerundive sentence openers, and a lack of quality prose made this paranormal fail muster. Pass.

Too many gerundive phrases as sentence starters, and conditional helping verbs, prevent the story from flowing/keeping my attention. Pass.

This fantasy used so many "as" phrases that it felt like it was written in a broken record-style on purpose: "as she bent down" "As the sun rose" "as she turned around" "as her arm reached out" "as he glanced in her direction". Pass.

The main character in this women's fiction has sighed TWICE on one page. Not a good sign...then the author misspelled some very common words. An even worse sign. Pass.

Crime novel. Opens with some brilliant language and fast paced plot. Looking good so far! Uck--nevermind. Crime novel turned gratuitously gross, and not in a well-written way, but in a B-movie way. Pass.

This paranormal looks really brilliant. Unfortunately, it opens with a nature scene (old cliche). Agent won't like that.... Nope. Paranormal used too many cliches (like "his heart pounded in his chest") with nature scenes ad nauseum. Pass

This apocalyptic novel opens with too much backstory, which kills the flow. Better to tinge action with slivers of backstory. Pass

This contemporary novel opens with too much backstory. I need to envision an opening seen & meet some characters, first! Pass.

This women's fiction has a touching premise, but is written too melodramatically to impress the agent. Pass.

A literary novel whose sentences were So long-winded that I felt like I was holding my breath as I read them! Pass

Despite good writing, the first chapter failed to hook me--to compel me to read on. Not good enough to sell, then. Pass.

Book is getting boring. Really great writing, but not so hot storytelling. Dialogues also feel contrived, not authentic. Pass.

[On 'Voice' -]
Here's a Regency that uses too much modern language to be believable. Also not well-written. Pass.

This male protagonist sounds way too female. Woman author didn't mask her identity very well. Pass.

The male protagonist in this paranormal sounded way too much like a woman. Attn female authors: seek dude beta readers!

The child protagonist in this coming-of-age novel speaks & thinks too much like an adult. Back to the drawing board, eh? Pass.

Agent just rolls her eyes when I forward overly pretentious literary novels like this one, so I'll save myself the grief. Pass.

A memoir that is way too whiney. Narrator's b*tching interferes with the story, creates unlikable character. Pass.

Here's a humorous women's fiction that opens with too much character introspection to elicit a laugh. Needs funny events! Pass.

[Back to bland:]

This memoir author has such an amazing story to tell! But editing can't transform sleepy bland writing into pretty prose. Pass.

This memoir isn't well written enough to get the agent's attention, and the main story isn't terribly interesting, either. Pass

Another memoir that is just recounting the author's life. No creative writing, no plot. This won't sell. Pass

The writing in this biography was so bland that anyone could have written it. Didn't make me want to turn any pages. Pass.

This author forgot to set the stage, describe the characters, or intrigue me enough to keep reading. Pass

A political thriller that totally grabbed my attention! Vivid description sets the scene; writing is good so far...Nope. Political thriller quickly turned stale when author failed to tighten up his sentences & keep the pacing fast. Pass.

This mystery author uses lots of big, fancy words, but alas, no fancy writing. Also, sentences are too long-winded. Pass.

Here's an author that refers to himself in the 3rd person in the query. That makes the query feel all wrong & hard to absorb. Grr
Mr. 3rd person's sample pages opened with lengthy nature narrative (a no-no) AND characters used each other's names too often. Pass

This paranormal tries to imitate Twilight, but the author forgot to study Meyer's fabulous linguistic flair & narrative flow. Pass.

This mystery used a cliche that is quite the pet peeve for publishers: opening the novel with vivid descriptions of weather. Pass.
[#Tip, Opening with dream/nightmare/waking up, is another cliche that's liable to get a rejection unless it's awesome]

An author who didn't do their homework. We don't rep his kind of nonfiction. Pass.
[Tip - don't send literary fiction to agencies dealing in commerical fiction. In fact, don't send any genre novel to an agency that doesn't rep. that genre]

Query spammer: this is the third time I've seen his query (and that's not counting other interns who work the inbox). DELETED.

This is the 3rd time I've rejected this murder mystery. If I see the dude's name in the inbox again, he gets blacklisted for sure.

Historical was obviously written by someone who knows their history--but not much about creative writing. Pass

This chicklit about the adventures of a recently divorced woman just doesn't stand out. Needs to stand out if we are to sell it. Pass

[And again:]
Here's a chicklit about woman who leaves NYC to run a bed & breakfast and find herself. An old, overused fiction template. Pass.

[#Agent's writing tip: Clive Cussler Lesson #1: "Stepping from the two-wheeled hansom cab, a tall bearded man shivered from the bitter cold..." Cussler's sentence is beyond pregnant here. In 2 lines, I've got rich character description, weather, setting, & scene... Most writers need six sentences just to tell me the weather. Publishers like writers that can say a lot without saying much.]

This political thriller sounded so cool, but the author's prose is too bland & lackluster--publishers wouldn't touch it. Pass

Same goes for this murder mystery--author can tell a story, but can't write creatively. Pass.

Ditto for this women's fiction: clever idea, but author failed 2 study creative writing b4 penning it. Writing too basic. Pass.

This mystery sounds okay, but the author doesn't write well enough. A few classes might change that, but an editor can't. Pass.

Next up: a travel/finding onesself memoir. Everyone's got "Eat Pray Love" fever these days, but this one isn't as good. Pass!

Now a psychological thriller. Prose is so bland that I have to keep rereading & asking, "Wait--what just happened?" zzzzzz Pass.

This thriller's author must not have read many thrillers. There are conventions that one must adhere to in this genre. Pass.

Here's the 1,000,000th afterlife book about the bureaucracy in heaven letting someone go back & fix things. Too expository.

This inspirational fiction is way too expository to be readable. Pass

Here's a women's fiction that spends too much time setting the stage & doing backstory. Where's the plot? Pass

This memoir has problems with tense AND punctuation in the first few lines. Agent would never make it past those errors. Pass

Political thriller. Writing is good so far. But is it excellent?... Thriller was *this* close. But then the author used apostrophes in non-possessive plurals. Means he's not a writer yet. Pass.
[#Tip: Occassional typos can be corrected, but persistant technical errors spread like dry rot through a mss. Too much work for Agent/publisher to fix.]

This women's fiction has no white space--is so expository that it doesn't flow. Excessive wordiness chokes the story. Pass

Now a mystery. But sample pages are so bland and prose so uninteresting. Author could use some classes in creative writing. Pass.

This memoir's narrative is too often interrupted for backstory. The two should flow together, not interrupt each other. Pass

This contemporary novel opens with a dialogue so poorly framed that I can't see the characters or envision their surroundings. Pass
[#Tip: Avoiding exposition doesn't mean leaving out the scene-setting detail that helps the reader visualise the setting]

Now a nonfiction query. Author doesn't have a platform, so agent wouldn't want to rep it. Pass.

From Jessica, at BookEnds "run-on sentences will result in a query rejection. I can only imagine how the manuscript must read."
- if the writer has problems with writing technique it'll show up in the query / covering letter & synopsis, before the agent even gets to the sample pages. So check for errors in syntax/grammar as well as typos.
Recently had one where the writer had incongruous word choices; not wrong, per se, but out of context. eg, 'rumours were squelched', rather than 'rumours were scotched'. Fine if it's Humour, but not when it's Historical Romance.


And the Good:

This author won some impressive awards. Gets automatically 4warded to agent because awards are widely known & respected.

Humor novel! This author wrote a laugh-out-loud funny query without sounding like he's trying too hard. Proves he has serious writing talent! Had me laughing out loud & dying to read more. Great writing; skilled author. forwarded to the agent.

A backwoods memoir that looks interesting. Time for the sample pages. Memoir is a winner--forwarded to agent! Agent might not like writing style, so I drafted defense of the author's brilliance.
[Tip, If Junior Agent/Intern like it enough they'll go to bat for the writer with their superiors and other departments. Even if they eventually pass on it, writer should get a personalised rejection out of it].

This pirate novel opens with vivid descriptions of lapping water, salty seas, and roughnecked men on deck. WIN! forwarded to agent.

Dark literary too awesome to pass up: tight writing, strong voice, great pacing. Gets forwarded to the agent! In this instance, Palahniuk-style writing. I don't usually go for dark fiction, but good writing is good writing! Winner!

Here's a women's fiction that has me laughing out loud! A very good sign! The women's fiction rocked! Tight writing, fast pacing, great descriptions and characters. Also very funny! forwarded to the agent!

Here's a cool-sounding southern fiction. Writing is sparse yet pregnant, eloquent & colorfully creative. Plot moves at a good pace & characters are rich. Looking good!

This author already has an editor with a publishing house that is interested, so her query gets forwarded to the agent right away.

This author has publishing credit with an actual publisher (not fake pub cred by self-publishing) so gets forwarded to the agent asap

Here's a commercial fiction in 1st person present, but the author looks able to pull it off. Am now reading more. Oh wow. This commercial fiction flows So well! Feels like a voice in my head, not words on the page. VERY good sign!!
This dark commercial fiction has tight pacing, vivid descriptions, and reads like a book already in stores! Gets forwarded! WINNER!


More tips here:

The Most Common Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts--And What to Do About Them

by Jerry Gross © 1996

The following list is compiled from my more than forty years of being an acquisition, developmental and line editor--plus the experience I have gained from presenting my “Secrets of a Book Doctor's Practice” workshops at writers' conferences around the USA.

Manuscripts in General

Submitting a dirty, hard-to-read manuscript to an already overworked editor with tired eyes. (Would you go for an interview in a soiled, wrinkled suit or dress? Of course not! Remember, your proposal or manuscript is your “interview” with the editor. So if it looks good, you look good.)


1. Failing to hook your reader's interest early--first paragraph!--and to keep that interest sustained. Many beginners start the story chronologically instead of at a peak point of dramatic interest--a crucial event or conversation.

2. Waiting too long to set the premise and conflict of the novel, and to introduce the reader to the protagonist and antagonist. Prolonged and excessive use of “descriptive writing” delays giving the reader someone to cheer and to hiss.

3. Not giving your characters believable motivations, actions and relationships. If you haven't fully developed characters before you start writing, those problems will be obvious to your editor.

4. Convincing and manipulating events instead of having the plot evolve from believable characters acting in credible ways.

5. Forgetting that where, when and how people make love in novels should reveal the psychological aspects of their relationship as well as their sexual tastes and preferences. Sometimes out of guilt or a craving for recklessness and risk taking, a couple might make love in a place where they know they may very well be discovered, thus endangering their affair-and even their lives. This is especially true in mystery and thriller writing. Love made in anger, or with tenderness, or in a manner forcing the other partner into unpleasant or objectionable acts give the sexual act or acts a tone and mood that goes beyond the mechanics of the act itself. For instance, if the two partners have had a fight, lovemaking might be done with hostility, or, as a loving, giving way of making up. Describe the mood and tone of the lovemaking.

6. Not bothering to convince the reader that the hero and the heroine have fallen in love--but merely saying that they do.

7. Permitting stilted dialogue to remain in a novel when merely reading the dialogue out loud, or hearing it played back on a tape recorder, could have forced you to make the dialogue sound more natural and believable.

8. Poor plotting that fails to give the novel, pace, shape, energy or interest. Poor plotting can be caused by overwhelming the reader with too many characters and too many conflicts too soon in the story--leaving the rest of the story thin in both character relationships and crucial events. The result is that the pacing is front-loaded and there's not enough drama or movement to keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens next. Plotting should be paced so that there is a steady appeal to, and satisfaction of the reader's curiosity about the people and events in the novel. It's like having a steady foot on the gas pedal to give a smooth ride.

9. Confusing the reader by not clearly indicating a change in time, locale or chronology of events. Simply inserting a transitional phrase such as “Two weeks later when John showed up at the office...” is one example of how this passage of time and locale can be indicated in a manuscript.

10. Refusing to describe characters, or to suggest their ages and individuality by giving them their own speech patterns, gestures, mannerisms, ways to walking and moving, etc.

11. Going for the unpredictable phrase or routine observation instead of relying on your own powers of observation and expression. Editors are turned off quickly by such clichés as:

“She was at the end of her rope. How could she ever pick up the pieces of her life?” Or “He looked in the mirror; his hair was thinning and his waist was thickening. His mid-life crisis was upon him!” Or “The clouds formed and reformed themselves like strange and wonderful faces and animals.”

12. Attempting to write in the style of a best-selling author instead of using your own authorial “voice.” For example, someone who relies heavily on describing the clothes someone wears to create character--in the manner of Tom Wolfe in BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. Or uses brand names to establish a scene as does Stephen King in many of his novels.

13. Reducing the effectiveness of the story by blatantly poor spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc.

14. An apparent inability to target the audience for the story, thus muddying the effects and weakening the strengths of the story. The writer should write for the audience that reads a particular genre--mystery, romance, science-fiction, etc.--and not try to muddy the waters by diluting the features of a genre in a misbegotten attempt to reach a wider, “mainstream” audience. Be true to the form you are writing in and to the audience you are targeting.


See also this list:

Top 25 Reasons Your Submissions are Rejected

Taken from:

This is Why I Would Not Read Farther:
1. An opening image that did not work.
2. Opened with rhetorical question(s).
3. The first line is about setting, not about story.
4. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was not tied to the plot or the conflict of the opening scene.
5. The first line’s hook did not work, because it was an image, rather than something that was happening in the scene.
6. Took too long for anything to happen (a critique, incidentally, leveled several times at a submission after only the first paragraph had been read); the story taking time to warm up.
7. Not enough happens on page 1
8. The opening sounded like an ad for the book or a recap of the pitch, rather than getting the reader into the story.
9. The opening contained the phrases, “My name is…” and/or “My age is…”
10. The opening contained the phrase, “This can’t be happening.”
11. The opening contained the phrase or implication, “And then I woke up.”
12. The opening paragraph contained too much jargon.
13. The opening contained one or more clichéd phrases.
14. The opening contained one or more clichéd pieces of material. (The most I counted in a single submission was 5.) Specifically singled out: a character’s long red or blonde hair.
15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. Specifically singled out: a character who shakes her head to clear an image, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.”
16. The opening has the protagonist respond to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
18. The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest…
19. An unnamed character (usually “she”) is wandering around the opening scene.
20. Non-organic suspense, created by some salient fact being kept from the reader for a long time (and remember, on the first page, a paragraph is a long time).
21. The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a physical description.
22. The first paragraph was straight narration, rather than action.
23. Too much physical description in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.
24. Opening spent too much time on environment, and not enough on character.
25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents, Daniel Lazar, seemed to have a problem with this.)
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
27. The book opened with a flashback, rather than what was going on now.
28. Too many long asides slowed down the action of an otherwise exciting scene.
29. Descriptive asides pulled the reader out of the conflict of the scene.
30. Overuse of dialogue, in the name of realism.
31. Real life incidents are not always believable.
32. Where’s the conflict?
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
34. Confusing.
35. The story is not exciting.
36. The story is boring (yes, they did differentiate between this and the one before it.)
37. The story is corny.
38. Repetition on pg. 1 (!)
39. Too many generalities.
40. The character shown is too average.
41. The stakes are not high enough for the characters.
42. The opening scene is too violent (in the example that generated this response, a baby’s brains were bashed out against a tree).
43. Too gross.
44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.
45. It is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead.
46. The story is written in the second person, which is hard to maintain.
47. The story is written in the first person plural, which is almost as hard to maintain.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.
49. The narration is in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate.
50. An adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often assumed to be YA.
51. What I call Hollywood narration – when characters tell one another things they already know. (They don’t call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)
52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example used: “She squawked.”)
53. The writing switched tenses for no apparent reason.
54. The action is told out of temporal order.
55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.
56. The writing lacks pizzazz.
57. The writing is dull.
58. The writing is awkward.
59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.
60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions. Specifically singled out: “She did not trust herself to speak,” “She didn’t want to look…”
61. Too many analogies per paragraph.
62. The details included were not telling.
63. The writing includes quotes from song lyrics.
64. Overkill to make a point.
65. “Over the top.”
66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”
67. “It’s not visceral.”
68. “It’s not atmospheric.”
69. “It’s melodramatic.”
70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”
71. “Why is this written in the present tense?”
72. “It just didn’t work for me.”
73. “It didn’t do anything for me.”
74. “I like this, but I don’t know what to do with it.”

This is Why I Would Read Beyond Page 1:
1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
3. The author made the point, then moved on.
4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
5. The voice is strong and easy to relate to.
6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
7. “Good opening line.”
8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”