Lessons from the other side of the rejection notice

My novel Amiga will be published by Black Rose Writing on November 27, 2019. I will describe my publishing journey in a series of posts. This is the seventh of the series.

My writing has been rejected more times than I can count. When I had the opportunity to evaluate other writers’ manuscripts for publication, you would think I would be more forgiving. Nope. When I’m helping someone determine what books they should stake their investment and reputation on publishing, I tend to be more critical. I see too many authors make easily fixable mistakes that lead to rejection.

I learned several things from the experience that will help you in submitting your manuscripts. This advice will also help you if you self-publish. When you are your own publisher, you need to be equally critical in evaluating your own work.

Proofread your work

With a few of the manuscripts I read, I was amazed by the number of typos and grammatical mistakes I found in what an author considered submission-ready. I wondered if that person even looked at the manuscript before sending it.

I don’t buy the argument, “If you’ve got a great story, who cares how many typos it has?” First, you’re creating extra work for the editor. At a small press with limited staff and even more limited time, this is an unfair burden. Second, it raises doubts about the quality of your material. If you’re sloppy with your grammar and spelling, what else is wrong with your work?

Typos happen, even in professionally edited books. But it’s not unreasonable to make your manuscript as clean as possible. If you aren’t able to get professional editing, there are techniques you can use to improve the quality of your work. Your manuscript needs to make the best possible impression.

Follow formatting guidelines

This best possible impression includes following formatting guidelines. There are basic rules for formatting manuscripts and publishers often provide their own. I’m surprised by writers who aren’t even in the ballpark. Single-spacing, odd combinations of fonts, and bad attempts at playing book designer.

The book designer is the person I sympathize for the most when looking at those oddly formatted manuscripts. How is that person supposed to put it in the publisher’s format? How is it going to be converted to an eBook? Since most publishers require submissions in Microsoft Word (which is notoriously fickle at formatting), you’re creating more work for the book designer by fiddling with custom styles and character overrides.

Follow the formatting rules. If you have to use special formatting, like I had to use block quote formatting for my books, keep it as simple as possible. Trust your book designer to render your words in the proper format for all the print and eBook platforms they support.

Keep the editor reading

I look at a manuscript the same way a reader would. Is this a book that someone would want to read all the way to the end? As a writer, you need to avoid DNF, Did Not Finish. This is the point where the reader gives up, loses interest, or rage quits a book.

Here are some DNF points for me:

  • An uninteresting start. To use a rock term, stories have to “burn at the first.” I need to get involved in the story and your characters from the start. If your story doesn’t hook me within the first 10–20 pages, I won’t stick around to see if it improves.
  • Losing steam in the middle. You may have a great opening and interesting characters, but you have to keep the plot moving. Is there a goal that is vital for characters to achieve, but there are obstacles and opponents? Does your story have mysteries to solve? Are there hints of some greater conflict ready to explode? If not, it will be a DNF.
  • Plot points that have no reason to be there. These include info dumps with irrelevant info, acts of violence that are only there for shock value, sex scenes that merely titillate and reveal nothing about the relationship, and characters who only show up to be killed and never referred to again. If you have elements that make me stop and wonder why they’re there, it will be a DNF.
  • A disappointing ending. The ending needs to answer the main story questions, reveal the theme of book, and leave me feeling my time with this book was worth it. I don’t like tacked-on Hollywood endings, deus ex machina plot twists, and main story threads left unresolved so you’re forced to buy the sequels. These come too late for a DNF, but they will still get a rejection.

Rejecting your own work

Writers look at self-publishing as a way to avoid rejection, but you have to be as critical with your own work as any acquisition editor. If some other writer sent you that manuscript, would you publish it? Is it riddled with typos and sloppy formatting that would waste a publisher’s time and resources? Is it a book you would drop halfway through or feel cheated at the end?

Instead of a “your work does not meet our needs at this time,” you have the knowledge and opportunity to improve your book. Join a critique group, look for beta readers, or hire an editor. Make your manuscript the best it can be, whether you submit it or self-publish it. This way, your book will be accepted by the most important people of all, your readers.