Not Right For Us at this Time


By Nancy Martin

     New writers often get the same rejection letters. “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 handout that listed the many reasons why books "aren't right for us at this time."  Contenders for the top spots on the list: 


  • Sending to agents who simply don't represent your genre. Do your research to find the right agent who can sell the kind of book you’ve written.
  • Your manuscript is a mess. Maybe you’ve got the formatting wrong (always double space!) or the wrong word count. If you can’t fix these problems yourself, take some classes or hire a freelance editor.
  • The story isn’t original. It has no surprises, no plot twists and turns. It’s average. In other words, put on your thinking cap and be more creative. If you don’t already belong to a critique group, you should find one right away.  Groups can help you brainstorm.
  •  The "world" of your story isn't interesting or marketable enough. Perhaps you’ve chosen to set your story in your own backyard, but you haven’t given it enough detail to make it exotic to someone who doesn’t live there. Re-read some of your favorite books to look for ways the author has made the world come alive. The old adage “your setting should be a character” is true.
  • Your story takes too long to get started. Most of us should throw away the first three chapters because it’s probably telling what happens before your story starts, which might be interesting to the writer, but it doesn’t engage a reader.  If nothing happens on the first page (or the first chapter) . . . that's a good indicator you don’t understand how to make action happen fast enough to satisfy a reader.  As your critique group for help or hire a freelance editor who can help you learn to kick things off faster.
  • Your protagonist is 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? Think of ways to make your lead character dynamic and entertaining.
  • Your 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 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 to help each other to enhance those techniques. Once you see where your writing is good, maybe you’ll see how to improve writing that’s dull.


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. If your critique group fusses about names of characters and fixing your punctuation---well, those are important points, but maybe you need a critique group that can be more useful. Ask your group to take a hard look at big picture issues, not just the small stuff. 


Why put off submitting your work to agents?  For one thing, it's emotionally 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. Polish your manuscript again and again until it’s ready.


Think about marketability. 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. Visit bookstores. Watch the bestseller lists on Amazon. Read reviews in respected media. 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?  Does your book idea fit? Or is your story dated?


It's hard to put a manuscript in 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 out your story 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. Thinking about the big picture will take you to the next level.



Nancy Martin is the author of nearly 50 popular fiction novels including The Blackbird Sisters Mystery Series and the Roxy Abruzzo series.  She serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, is a founding member of Pennwriters, and blogged at The Lipstick Chronicles. Nancy teaches writing workshops around the country and online.