This has been a pretty busy season for manuscript submissions, despite (or perhaps because of) the economy. Since Mysterious Matters seems to get the most hits when I write about "things not to do," I thought I'd offer the most common reasons for rejection in the last couple of months. We may not say these things directly in our rejection letters, but we turned down your book because...
1. Your story didn't start in the first 25 pages of your manuscript. You'd be amazed at how many manuscripts have absolutely no action, or no initiating mysterious incident, in the first couple of chapters. Boring your readers in the first two chapters is no way to get a book published.
2. You burdened your early chapters with backstory. You gave me your protagonist's entire life story almost immediately, before I really developed an interest in learning about the protag. Your manuscript was so mired in the past that I couldn't get excited about the present.
3. Your protagonist was too old. Ouch--hard to say this (though it is one of the benefits of blogging anonymously), but the market for geriatric sleuths is limited. So many manuscripts with retired amateur sleuths, living in Florida or some other retirement mecca, and not enough people who want to read about the elderly.
4. You don't write very well. Either your prose is clunky or too ornate; too simple or too complicated; too heavy to sustain your topic or too light to have any gravitas. The ironic thing is that your story may have had potential, but your writing skills just aren't polished enough.
5. Your fiction read like nonfiction. You know a lot about a topic, such as chemistry, or art, or geology, so you filled your manuscript with your knowledge. The problem is that your mystery manuscript turned into a textbook--and not many would argue that textbooks are fun to read, with a good amount of suspense.
6. You or your agent didn't follow our submission guidelines. You sent what you felt like sending instead of what we specifically require. Or (and this is somewhat unbelievable, given the well-known and much-blogged-about proper submission standards) you did not include a SASE for a reply.
7. You sent me a diary, not a well-plotted novel. I got to page 20 and felt as if I was reading about the minutiae of your (the protagonist's) life and asked myself, "Where is the mystery? What is amiss here?" And I couldn't find answers to those questions.
8. Your manuscript didn't make me think up spontaneous tag lines. In a crowded marketplace, I need to be able to think about and describe your book in a sentence or two that makes people think, "Wow, that sounds REALLY interesting." I couldn't think up a sentence or two about your book that would elicit that reaction.
9. Your manuscript didn't pass muster with our publicist. I may have liked your book, but when I showed it to the publicist, she shrugged her shoulders indifferently. (See point #8.)
10. You made my eyes roll back in my head. That could have happened for any number of reasons. Your punning title was too ridiculous, or your characters tried too hard to be "funny." Or you blatantly ripped off an already successful series, or you had characters speaking in ways that no human being speaks. Or you took yourself way too seriously....