Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Not Right For Us At This Time

The Blood-Red Pencil would like to welcome guest blogger Nancy Martin, the author of some fifty popular fiction novels. If you are currently submitting manuscripts to agents and editors, pay close attention as Nancy shares rejection letter translations skills she's gained over the course of her prolific career.

“Sorry, this manuscript isn’t right for us at this time.”

"We will pass on this one but please send us more submissions."

Have you received one of these emails after sending a manuscript or partial to an agent? This kind of rejection note generally means your writing is good, but your story idea is one that the agent can't sell. The real message? Put this manuscript in a drawer and write something fresh for us because your writing isn’t the problem.

Part of the frustration of the submission process—which always comes with a disheartening amount of rejection—is trying to interpret what secret message might be contained in a gentle refusal to represent your manuscript.

Years ago, I interviewed many agents and editors for a Sisters in Crime project and came up with a list of the many reasons why books "aren't right for us at this time." Contenders for the top spots on the list:

• Mechanical stuff such as wrong formatting, wrong word count, or sending to agents who simply don't represent your genre.

• Stories that aren't original. That have no surprises, no plot twists and turns.

• The "world" of your story isn't interesting or marketable enough.

• Stories that take too long to get started. (Most of us should throw away the first three chapters. And if nothing happens on the first page…that's a good indicator that the writer doesn't understand how to make action happen fast enough to satisfy a reader. If there's one thing e-books have taught us? It's that stories must start with a bang and keep—er—banging.)

• Protagonists that are inadvertently unpleasant or dull. (Who wants to spend 300 pages with a jerk? Or one with a boring voice? Or one who doesn't take action? Or one who has no emotional core that hooks the reader?)

• The writing isn't good enough. (Purple prose is always a turn-off, but sometimes writers don't see that our work is just plain dull. Or the drama isn't on the page. Or there's a total lack of emotion--both experienced by the characters and also triggered in the reader. An excellent goal for a critique group would be to pinpoint dramatic scenes or emotional subtext and help each other to enhance those techniques.)

Yes, these are hard to hear. But we're all guilty. After writing nearly 50 books, I'm still working hard to use sparkling prose, find intriguing ideas, make my characters engaging, and to create stories that are compelling. It never comes naturally. It's all hard work.

What to do? My gentle urge would be to take your time submitting. Before you send, hire a freelance editor and demand that editor take off the gloves and be ruthless with your work. Force your critique partners to read critically and seek out the weaknesses. It's so much easier to make changes on a manuscript than suffer so many rejections that you eventually have no options but to put the book in a drawer---or the current equivalent, putting it up on Amazon as an e-book.

As writers, we're all very focused on our words and our plots. But really, when it comes time to submit, we must think like businesspeople. Look at the big picture. Discuss with your critique partners. What's selling right now? What's popular in the marketplace? What are readers buying? What kinds of books are staying on the bestseller lists? It's important for us to think about concepts. Not just the writing. It's hard to put a manuscript into a drawer and start on something new. It's like throwing a baby in a drawer. But think of the pages as your practice manuscript. Maybe you can pull it out later and try again. Meanwhile, try writing something that's marketable. That people will clamor to buy. Not something like other writers are pounding out. Something fresh and fast-paced and well-written. New ideas will always sell faster than old ideas, no matter how well-written. Thinking about the big picture will take you to the next level.

Some current books I think are setting benchmarks:
Room by Emma Donoghue
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah E. Harkness
Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
A Stolen Life: A memoir by Jaycee Lee Dugard
The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson
A Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

These are all writers worth talking about. Who would you add to the list?

Nancy Martin is the author of nearly 50 popular fiction novels including The Blackbird Sisters Mystery Series and the Roxy Abruzzo series. Her most recent book is Sticky Fingers. She serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, is a founding member of Pennwriters, and blogs at The Lipstick Chronicles. Nancy teaches writing workshops around the country and online. Visit her website at or on Facebook.

Posted by BRP contributor Kathryn Craft. Thanks, Nancy!


  1. As one of those 'ruthless' editors, I must say that this is right on. Great information, Nancy! Thank you for sharing it with us, Kathryn.

  2. I recently read manuscripts for a contest. Wish the entrants had read this first.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. When I first saw this list I knew we had to have it at the BRP--it is chock full of useful information, and is a handy checklist to use if you've been receiving rejections. I especially love Nancy's admission that she still works hard to up her game after 50 books!

  4. Right on Nancy. Some beginning writers as well as some not-so-beginning writers will thank you for this.

  5. Try handling submissions for children. If I regularly give one piece of advice it's this: If you want to write a children's book, write to the child. Don't cloak an adult message or lesson in a piece of kidlit. You would not believe how many of those get written and mailed... and rejected.

  6. Also, follow submissions guidelines to the letter. This is no place to show off your creativity in manuscript formatting. Very important is submitting in the font style and size the publisher requests. Because it's easier on the editor's eyes! I could go on...

  7. Kind of related to this, there is a post up at Little Pickle Press about emotional safety - the list of tips applies to editors, too, and anyone who has to critique another person's work. Rejection doesn't have to be unkind.

  8. Some messages are worth scribbling on sticky notes and plastering them to our monitors--no matter where we are in our careers.

    Linda, ruthless is the only way to go, right?

  9. One more thing. Adding to Nancy's list of books, I recommend Aftertaste, a Novel in Five Courses by Meredith Mileti. I predict a film version in it's future.

  10. I'm still working on getting more acceptance letters and have yet to receive one from a publisher or agent, but I must say, anytime I sent any articles or freelance work to my editor, she made vast improvements -- sometimes with the change of just one word.

    When you hire an editor for yourself, he or she works for you ... on your behalf ... in the interest of improving your work. It's natural to want to hide from their scrutiny, but once you add one to your team, you'll never go back.

    Thanks for the other suggestions, too.

  11. Write Beat--Some freelance editors, in fact, are more like writing teachers. And it's nice to have an ally.

  12. Thanks for this very useful post!

  13. Oh, thanks, Nancy. Now I can't delete you-know-who. LOL.

  14. Thanks for the very helpful post. It is so important to be professional and follow the guidelines when submitting. I remember when I used to go to a lot of conferences I would get tired of editors repeating the basics of submission formats, etc, but when I became an acquisitions editor for a magazine, I understood why those basics were repeated over and over. Some writers never listen.

  15. This is helpful. If anything, for me personally, the rejection spurs me to keep writing and submitting, knowing that something has to come along eventually.

  16. Well, I agree with everything in this post, and the list of original reads is good--but there's no duplicating Jaycee Duggard, and one could hardly call her life "research." She's certainly inspiring, and that's the essence of success in any hard luck story (hers being notably triumphant, considering the hell through which she came), but having acknowledged all that, why does her book make the list of books that are doing something different? Because she found the strength to write about it? For many survivors, that would be highly therapeutic--abuse memoir sells really well. What is it about the way she tells her story that's so
    unique that it deserves a place on the list with The Hunger Games and Eat, Pray, Love? Curious. I highly doubt Jaycee Duggard had to send a query, at all, and I confess that although I hope she's an amazing writer, my expectations of her wowing me on a literary basis are quite low.

  17. Excellent post, Nancy! I'm going to send my writing clients here for your great advice.

  18. Thanks for this great post,i really like this article you wrote so professionally glad to see all these informative things you put so nicely in this article.

  19. Nancy this is first time i visit your site and you make me your big fan because you are amazing the way you write this article is great.


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