How to Decipher an Agent’s Rejection Letter Part 2

Last week, I talked about agents rejecting query letters and how to decipher what the rejection letter might mean. Today, we’ll look at rejections you might receive from an agent who read a partial (usually 50-100 pages, but this varies) of your book.

If you’re querying, you know some agents only want you to send a query while others want pages and/or a synopsis included. This can be anything from the first five pages of your story to the first five chapters or fifty pages. Yeah, the submission guidelines are all over the place and there’s no way to guess who wants what. You need to READ and FOLLOW submission guidelines for any agent you query.

In this case, the agent has had a chance to read some of your work, which is nice because writers often complain about how query letters don’t represent their ability to write a novel and they don’t want to be judged off of that. (Mastering the query letter is something you’ll have to learn, whether you traditionally publish or self-publish and need to write a back cover blurb, but that’s another post.) Here’s your chance to shine. Show ‘em what you’ve got.

At this point, it’s hard to say if the query letter hooked the agent or if she gave you the benefit of the doubt and skipped to the sample pages. Agents have blogged about mediocre queries that didn’t hook them, but the sample pages and the writing did. So, it’s important that you make those sample pages shine. Don’t stop there. You need to polish your whole manuscript or it could get rejected because the beginning drew in the agent and the rest didn’t deliver. Don’t let that happen to you. Polish, polish, polish before you submit.

Let’s say the agent read at least some of the sample pages you provided. Most agents will stop reading as soon as they lose interest or once they feel something about the sample pages isn’t working for them.

Possible reasons for rejection:

-You may receive a rejection for the reasons I mentioned in my last post: the agent has a full client list, he doesn’t represent your genre, the query and/or pages didn’t hook him, the idea isn’t unique enough, editors are tired of that idea, or maybe he just isn’t interested in that topic.

-You didn’t start at the right place. Sometimes authors start their stories so far back that it takes a while for the story to move forward. This can mean the beginning pages are filled with backstory. Or the opposite. Some authors jump right into an action scene because they’re trying to avoid a backstory dump, but this can be hard to pull off. Often, the reader feels lost and/or doesn’t care what happens to the protagonist because she doesn’t know him yet. It’s important to find the right balance between too much backstory and none.

-Poor execution. The story starts with a dream, or when the protagonist wakes up. Or the character is looking in the mirror and describing her appearance. Or the author spent too much time walking us through the scene or the world, but nothing happens to advance the plot. The story always has to move forward. Keep that in mind.

-The author’s voice or the idea is too similar to that of another author the agent represents. Even if you did the research and knew who the agent represents, this might still affect you. An agent tweeted the other day about having to reject a perfectly good manuscript because it was too similar to one she represents but hasn’t announced. There’s nothing you can do about that.

-The GMCs (goals, motivations, conflicts) aren’t obvious or are missing. This means the characters have nothing to pursue and nothing keeping them from chasing those goals. It also means your story isn’t organized and will be all over the place, the writing often episodic.

-No conflict. Nothing’s at stake. While some writers are great at spilling words onto the page and making them sing, if there’s no conflict, the reader doesn’t have a reason to keep reading. Of course, there are always exceptions. Some readers will love to read words that make them smile even if nothing is happening, but agents are looking to sell the work and make money off it. They know publishers and most readers want more.

-There are craft issues. Maybe you tell instead of show. Maybe you don’t go deep enough in the character’s point of view (POV). Maybe the scene lacks emotions. Whatever the case may be, most agents don’t have time to teach you the craft. They may be willing to help you revise, but you need to prove that you know the craft first.

-There are mechanical errors. Does your grammar suck? Are your pages filled with spelling or punctuation mistakes? This is a huge red flag. Agents will ignore the occasional typo or spelling error, but if the pages are flooded with mistakes, they’ll pass.

If an agent REQUESTS a partial (often 50-100 pages) not to be confused with the pages included with the query letter, you know:

-The query hooked her.
-She represents this genre or likes the idea enough to want to take it on even if she doesn’t.
-She likes the story’s premise.
-She’s open to new clients.
-If she read pages that were included with the query letter, she liked your beginning.

If the agent rejects after you’ve sent her the partial she requested, you know the rejection is based off the writing sample you sent, not the query. While rejection is never easy, at least you know what needs to be revised. Translation: The query is working. The pages aren’t.

As always, pay attention to the feedback agents give you. Agents are busy. If they took the time to tell you what they liked or didn’t like in your work, take this as a compliment. It probably means you’re almost there, which is why they tried to give you a little push. Agents aren’t evil. They want you to succeed. Preferably with them.

Next week, we’ll wrap up this series and take a look at rejections from requested fulls.

Lynnette Labelle

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