Top Reasons for Rejections
Most writers--I was one of them back in the day--want to know what's wrong with a piece so they can fix it. While a writing group is invaluable help for feedback, few groups will have an editor with acquisitions experience. It's a frustrating mystery to all why a perfectly good story that they love gets the boot.
Rejections are more clear to editors who have survived the slush pile. When you've read 100s, if not thousands of submissions, you KNOW what works and what doesn't. That's why we're so delighted and grateful when we find a shining gem in the swamp. We're over the moon to find something worth reading and can't wait to share it with others.
But this is about what doesn't work.
The most common reasons--within my experience when I read slush and began doing critiques--are:
Slow opening with no hook. If you don't know what those are, you're not ready to publish. Go to a bookstore, open 50 books and read just the first line. If you want to know what happens next and HAVE to read the second line, then that is a writer who knows how to do a hook. My favorite example is from a Jim Butcher novel, "The building was on fire and it wasn't my fault." I'm not walking away from that! What happens next??
Data dump opening. I know you think you need to pack in all this backstory, but study how other writers deal with it. Pages of history about Planet Phlarg and the Tapioca Rebellion might set up your space opera, but see how Lois McMaster Bujold gradually introduces the backstory in her Vorkosigan series--after she brings in the protags and their immediate conflicts.
Focusing on the setting instead of the character. You should be writing about a person, not the scenery, weather, or ancient history. I know others do this, but until you have their sales figures, level up on your debut. Even writers with great sales figures will open with a hook because they're smart that way.
Character waking up (with or without a hangover). I have a whole rant on that one. It's somewhat entertaining. The short version: don't do this.
Other opening cliches to avoid: Protag taking a bubble bath; looking out a window; having a bad dream, lengthy intro of a character and short bio only to kill him/her off violently, then you start the story. Please, you can do better than that and you know it. The last one can happen at any point in a book, and they just annoy me.
Mistaking an action scene for a hook. Until we know the main character and his/her problems, we don't care who wins the Big Fight. I waded through pages of a well written chase scene that managed to leave out the name and even gender of the protag, along with the nameless bad guys in pursuit. By the time the writer got to an actual plot point, the 10-page sample was used up and I had no idea what the book was about.
Writing out a D&D adventure and failing to file off the serial numbers. As mentioned in Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun, no one cares about six characters looking for a magic sword. By the way, find that book and read it. It won the Edgar Award for best mystery. It's about a murder at a science fiction convention. You might recognize Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock mashed up as the convention's guest of honor. Interesting combo.
Unlikable protagonist. Guilty of this one myself. Tis true. In the early drafts of Bloodlist, Jack was not sympathetic. Thankfully an editor mentioned it in a scribbled note on the submission and I did another rewrite. I have read works where the protag was an outright arsehole. The writer had gone overboard in the sassy snark department. Every line was bitchy sarcasm, nothing witty or humorous about it. Her protag was not a person I wanted to get to know better. You can have a protag with some edge, but the reader needs to be able to connect.
Zombies. (They're OVER. Time to shamble on.) The Walking Dead was the big show at the time. I saw one episode in reruns and it just didn't work for me. Not a horror fan, sorry. However, every 3rd submission seemed to have a zombie outbreak/dystopian thing going, with no new ideas on that theme. Unless your zombie is different from ALL the others, expect rejection.
Protective mommy watching her angelic child sleeping until a monster appears. Hand to heart, this turned up, with nearly identical descriptions of the kid, in about every 6th submission. Sometimes it was a daddy with a male writer, but usually a mommy (and a female writer), and at the end of the story the monster ate them after a bit of angsty sturm und drang. They were toast from the first fond glance at angelic (sleeping) child, more toast than a freakin' IHOP.
The protective protag often suffered from a raging case of being TSTL. (Too Stupid To Live. I feel threatened, actually SEE the danger, so I'll see what's in the basement or ignore that creaking door sound and not pick up so much as a soup spoon for a weapon!)
I'd skim to confirm the usual end, then I stopped skimming to the end altogether. Later on, soon as I saw fond mommy, sleeping kid, I closed the file and pasted in the form rejection. My employers said if it doesn't grab you on page one, move on to the next story. We got in 100s of new subs every DAY. I had no time to waste on stale tropes. Writing what you know doesn't work for this one.
Triple rejection points if the family dog or cat also gets killed during this dull debacle. I hate those!
Bullied kid suddenly finds his super powers and defeats bullies. You'd think that would be a classic in YA. I suppose it is, but I've yet to read anything fresh in that line. One memorable submission began the same as all the others I'd seen that day with the protag being chased and caught. Then, instead of the usual bully gets his, it veered into an extended graphic sexual torture scene of the young protag by the bullies. I can't unread that. It left me scarred. I took a bullet for all of literature by rejecting that stinking pile of -- well, just don't do that to hapless editors. There is horror and then there is sadistic kiddie pr0n. That ain't our market.
We've seen this one before. That's the most frequent reason for rejection. We keep seeing the same thing again and again, no shaking up, no standing on the head, nothing fresh, just a recycling of ideas from your favorite books. You gathered all the tropes of that genre together into a sad little drooping bouquet and since you worked very VERY hard on it, you are certain the hard work will count for something and make a sale. It may be fresh to you because it's your first time writing that theme, but we have seen it before. No extra credit for sincere effort.
Consider this a practice run that gets some of those million words of drek out of your system and keep writing. Keep reading, too, and READ OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE. That's how you avoid LITERARY INCEST, which is what you sent us. Your work reads like all the others we've seen, right down to the droning voice.
Stinky writing. Sorry, mate, go back to the library, read 200 books (all different kinds) to see how it's done and keep practicing, you're not ready for Carnegie Hall yet. There may be no cure for stinky writing, but keep at it, you never know. Some of my early stuff was so toxic you could see fumes leaking from the file cabinets. Most writers have a million words of drek to get out of their system before they get to a place where they can really write. It's like playing the piano. Some pick up a tune fast, others have to practice for 100s of hours. Whatever your speed, it's right for you. Just write. And read.
Introducing an animal only to kill it so the Protag Feels Bad (or gets mad and seeks revenge). I want to hurt those writers. No jury will convict me. Every time I saw a critter introduced, ordinary or supernatural, I knew it was toast. That's when I'd start skimming. Soon as the critter came to a bad end I'd stop and paste in the rejection letter. I know the tastes of the readers in the venue's target market. They don't like dead animals either. I don't care that your favorite writer kills critters. Unless you have his sales figures, we don't want any furry, finned, or scaled corpses littering our screens.
SENDING THE SUBMISSION TO THE WRONG PUBLISHER. Yes, this should be obvious, but I didn't know it back in the day, so I was sending urban fantasy to publishers of cozy mysteries. My "logic" was I thought they might be tired of cozy mysteries and enjoy publishing something different, just to have a change.
That's how a *reader* thinks. You get full up on romances and want to try a thriller for variety, but publishers don't think that way. Publishers and agents specialize, just like doctors. They are familiar with their genre and know how to market it. I know, Frank Herbert's Dune got published by a car repair manual house. That was half a century ago. This is now. Catch up.
READ THE MAGAZINES you're targeting. You do not send edgy, graphic horror to a zine that prefers light fantasy. Since I began reading how to submit stuff back in dinosaur days, the theme from editors was "read our magazine." It's not about them hoping to score a sale. It's about sending the kind of stuff they want to buy. They know their target market: if you don't write their kind of story, you're wasting your time and theirs.
Patronizing (or pompous) cover letter. I don't read cover letters and get right to the story to see if it has any legs. A bad cover letter won't kill your story, but you don't do yourself any favors with, "I know you're only an editor and might not understand the complex themes in this work, but...."
That one used to get passed around to other editors for a laugh, but we don't bother any more, having seen too many. All you need is your name, contact addy, the title, genre, and word count. A "thank you for your time" as a closer is fine. Keep It Simple! It's okay to have no resume, we all start the same, unknown and unsold. There's no shame in that.
Including your astrological sign, number of kids/pets, a hint of your kooky personality, how much you think this story will win a Hugo, that your mom and writers' group LOVED it is a waste of typing. Less is more.
DO NOT include the names of venues you have submitted work to; those count ONLY if you SOLD something. Non-paying venues do not count. This editor needs to know if another editor liked your words enough to pay real money for them. You say "I have sold work to: name of paying venue." Yes, keep it simple and no fibbing. I have access to Google and will look you up.
Having crazyhat shit up on your FB page. It's true. A few times I have looked up the writer, saw that they were not only certifiable, but a danger to themselves and others, and rejected the story. Be careful what you post on the Interwebzy-Thang.
In one case I know it cost ME an editing job. I'd applied to do editing at a small romance house, and that day, frustrated by crap I'd seen on a bestseller list, vowed to write the worst romance possible, upload the uncorrected drek to Kindle, and make a million on it. It was intended as humor. Of course my potential employers saw that, decided I was not funny (or professional), and said no thank you. (Yes, I LOVE romance -- if it is well-written. The titles on that list were badly written, yet selling like mad. It's frustrating, but keep your frustrations to yourself. Blog or post positive stuff or don't post at all. The Interwebzy-Thang is forever.) Be professional. The time to rant is after you're on the bestseller list yourself.
If a story avoids those pitfalls, then maybe you've got a shot.
If you Google around for other reasons why books get rejected you'll get depressed, but you'll learn a lot.
Then you get over the depression, put on your game face, and get to work!