Friday, September 11, 2009

10 Solutions to Top 10 Reasons Your Book was REJECTED by Robert W. Walker

As both a writing professor and an editor with my Knife Services, I see all manner of writing from the best and greatest writing to the worst and most unfortunate. When an autopsy for your story or book is necessary, it may require a scalpel. In fact a Stryker saw may be needed to cut it to the bone. When I speak to other writers and editors, what I hear again and again about a book’s rejection is that it failed in one or more of the Ten Deadly Sins of writing and here they are:

10. No sense of play/fun comes through on the page—that the author is not passionate over his/her story to the degree that it shines through. Solution—rewrite with a smile.

9. No sense of specific audience the author is writing to excite. Difficult to determine the genre and thus audience. Solution—rewrite with a cold eye as to what category your story falls into.

8. No sense of forward-moving plot/action in the story. Solution—work with the word compelling tattooed on your brain or taped over your computer along with a list of and how all five senses can be placed in a scene.

7. Pronoun references are weak; pronouns proliferating to exclusion of naming people, places, and things. There are many errors that involve pronouns. Solution—name names and repeat names of people, places, and things. Triangulate character’s five senses and sometimes his/her sixth sense into each scene.

6. Cluttered sentences; overblown sentences and paragraphs. A given character or characters are blowhards—going on in paragraph-length dialogue segments. Solution—break into lengthy dialogue segments with “action” lines or “interruptions” from other characters.

5. Action stops cold with description of a person, place, or thing. Does not involve action in the descriptive segments. Solution—strive to sift everything through the mind and five senses of your characters, especially your main characters.

4. Passive Voice takes over throughout the story; Active Voice is dead or nonexistent. Helping, linking, and verb to be proliferation. Twelve WASes in a single paragraph. Solution—wrestle the verb to be and helping verbs to the mat and replace them with active verbs; takes work but can be done.

3. Sentences are filled with qualifiers—words that qualify otherwise strong nouns and verbs. Sentences riddled with qualifying remarks that undercut otherwise strong sentences. Solution—when in doubt, strike it out; when a word like Very or Maybe or Sometimes does not had power or allow the power to fall on the subject noun or verb, then excise this qualifier.

2. Dialogue is wooden; dialogue is perfect English but imperfect pitch. Too formal dialogue reads like bad lines for the Native American character in a western.

1. Failure to wring drama and conflict out of situations and characters. Solution—No guts, no glory; no conflict, no story. A story is a war (or should be), and a story without a war is a snippet. Each chapter should set up obstacles to one’s character. Character plus conflict equals drama.

In addition -- do not stop your ACTION to describe a person, place or thing. Place the thing, the setting, the other character into the perceptions of your main character. It is of little interest that “authorities” suspect the victim is already dead, but it is of huge interest to the reader that “Marcus” or “Katrina” suspects this.

I hope these comments are of use and helpful to you in rewriting and finishing your novel or story. To locate direct help from me and my Knife Services at

Rob Walker


Deb Larson said...

What a great list! Thanks for sharing.
DL Larson

Morgan Mandel said...

Wonderful advice, Rob.
These are the kind of things to look for when you're editing your story after it's done. It's kind of fun making it shine.

Morgan Mandel

Terry Odell said...

Excellent suggestions, and I agree with Morgan that it's during the editing process that a lot of these things should be addressed. Until they're second nature, if you try to get them into draft #1, you might lose your voice. And, it's your voice that will catch the editor's eye.

Rob Walker said...

Oh I agree this means Wrtiing is Rewriting and then Rewriting the Rewrite...and as for Voice, hey, Voice is the culmination of it all, the final product, the end all, and Voice is more important than any other element because it is the culmination of thousands of small decisions that make up the elements of style. Check EB White's LAST chapter in The Elements of Style. I reread it often.

Anonymous said...

I love this -- No guts, no glory; no conflict, no story --

As a writer, we have to be willing to "put ourselves out there," to risk something, and to write on the edge. Those may SOUND like cliche's, but when you dare to write EDGY . . . you can feel the difference.

Great post!

Ann Charles said...

"When in doubt, strike it out" Excellent! I need to remember this one during my sentence-by-sentence evaluation process. Thanks, Rob, for sharing this list.

Ann C.

Anonymous said...

Rob, thanks for point out your blog entry over at Kindlekorner.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I'll join the chorus: these are excellent suggestions. And they represent common mistakes that all of us make. Most important, we must be our own editors. There's always room for improvement.

Jacqueline Seewald

NovelKid said...

Listen to this man! He knows what he's talking about. I've been teaching writing for 22 years and I constantly make the same points to my students. Particularly vile to me, (just one of my peeves, I guess) is the break in the action to describe what someone is wearing or the setting. For God's sakes...think about it. If your character is in a life and death battle, is he going to notice the primroses growing on the path beside his head which is about to be shopped off by a very sharp sword? Methinks not...

Oh, and one more thing before I finish...When you're writing the setting, involve your character in it. If you have him or her stop at the entrance to a room and list everything in the room, I'm gonna snooze or skip over it.

On, sorry...I didn't mean to start preaching, Rob...Great blog... You are the best.
Nancy Knight

Kelly Irvin said...

Great list. I once had a manuscript rejected because the editor said she had to know too much backstory about the main character to care about her. What do you make of that?

Thomas Emmite said...

I'm glad you wrote these helpful tips. Thanks.

Rob Walker said...

Kelley Irvin - your question is posed in such a manner as to leave me wondering one, did the editor really mean to say that she rejected the MS because it had too much backstory, or that it took too much backstory for her to become interested in the character, or three, that it takes a lot of backstory for her to become interested in the main any case, the fact is ten is too short a list for all the strange and weird reasons I have heard for rejection over the years. My Cuba Blue seems rejected more often than not because an editor believes no readers are interested in a main character who is Cuban and living in Cuba. One story once turned down had the note attached that said, "Just the kind of shit we hate here at XYZ."
SAY, do you all know that you have automatically been placed in a drawing for a FREE signed copy of my DEAD ON for taking the trouble to come and leave a comment? True!
No lie.

Rob Again said...

PS - my wife Miranda hastens to add a number 11 reason for a reject...and that is failure to follow the publisher's directions to the letter - such things as ASAP. I had wanted to talk craft, however, not such mechanics, so. But Miranda is right for the most part, so I thought I'd add that. By the say, if you intentionally break one of thier commnadments, it best be either clever or funny enough to make em laugh.

Helen Kiker said...

Number 7 is the one that drives me nuts when I am reading a book. Those pronouns often make me re-read the previous paragraghs. After that happens over and over I just quit the book.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great list, Rob! And I'll add the following bit of advice. If an agent or editor gives you specific feedback on your submittal, that means that think your material is VERY close to publishable, and you should definitely listen to that advice and fix the manuscript. Also, I have been told to, and always try to, start the book on page 1 where the protagonist's life changes forever. In my case, since I write mysteries, the body hits the floor in chapter one.

Rhonda Browning White said...

Great article addressing mistakes I've made often in the past, but that I've learned (in a large part, due to you), to hate with a passion! Your advice (former student, here), took me from novice to a paid writer and editor. DO WHAT THIS MAN SAYS!

P.S. - Miranda is right. Curly-que fonts, single spaced lines and no margins just won't cut it.

Pat R. said...

I've never written a book but if I decide to I'll remember to check your list.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this. A sense of play/fun can rescue what may have been a mediocre book.

Rob Walker said...

Great comments everyone. Those of you who did not leave a name or if I don't know you or how to get in touch....I can't find you, that makes the drawing handicapped. If you are interested in the Prize -- a copy of DEAD need to declare your name and where I can reach you so I can contact you at the time of winning. Tomorrow -- writing on at Acme.


For a novice writer I'll need to reread and reread this info. Afterall writing is the supreme communication in every way. Thank you all.

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