- It’s a genre I don’t represent. This includes: short stories, novellas, screenplays, middle grade, picture books, chapter books, romance, hard sci-fi, paranormal, urban fantasy or high fantasy.
- It’s a story I’ve heard before. There’s an FBI profiler with a checkered past or a princess who wants her freedom. There’s a reason why so many people write these storylines: these are popular storylines that people like to read. It’s just that whenever a genre is that oversaturated, a debut author has to bring something fresh to the table to prove that despite the plethora of books already out there with this idea, their book needs to be published. If there’s fantastic writing and deeply developed, unusual characters, then the query can overcome this hurdle. It’s a big burden to overcome, which is why so many books fall short.
- The genre is unclear or the book doesn’t meet the guidelines of its genre. Sometimes I’ll see in queries that the author is trying to merge genres in a way that muddies the genre up. For example, they’ll write a book that’s part self-help, part memoir. You can have a memoir that indirectly provides advice or inspiration to people going through the same thing. And you can have a self-help book that utilizes your personal story in addition to others. But you need to be clear on which category your book falls in. If publishers can’t figure out where to put to your book in a bookstore, they won’t take a chance on your book. Another way in which books sometimes don’t meet the requirements of their genre is word count. Writer’s Digest posted a great blog about word count norms for each genre a while back. In my opinion with YA you should aim for 70,000-90,000 words, but 55,000-100,000 words is still passable. With adult books, you should aim for 80,000-100,000 words. 60,000 words is about as low as I’ll go with adult books. 100,000 is about my max. If I see a book over 100,000 words it makes me want to run for the hills. If you’re writing in a specialized genre, like children’s books or romance, know the norms for that genre. I’ll sometimes see books pitched as young adult where the protagonist is 12, or the protagonist is an adult. Your protagonist in any YA novel needs to be a teenager (14-18 years old). So just know the genre you’re writing in. Read what’s popular in that genre. Read debut authors in that genre. Know what’s out there. This should go without saying, but you should like the genre you’re writing in. You should already be an avid reader in it. That alone will help you understand the norms and expectations for it.
- The voice doesn’t grab me. There’s nothing actively wrong with the voice. It just doesn’t fully anchor me in the story. Common pitfalls with voice include: over-narrating and over-thesaurus-ing. An example of over-narrating is: “I recoiled slightly, concerned that he would see me squatting behind the SUV.” You should put the reader directly in your protagonist’s head, and this kind of writing feels too distant and stylized. Something more like this puts the reader directly in your protagonist’s head: “I pulled back. Did he see me? My leg twitched, begging me to stretch it. But I couldn’t move.” Over-thesaurus-ing is pretty much what it sounds like. You feel like the author had a thesaurus next to them as they were writing, because every sentence has some archaic, complex or unusual word in it. The kind of word you would see on the SATs. You may have a fabulous vocabulary and use these words in conversation all the time, but most people don’t, so they can feel unnatural, like the writer’s trying too hard to sound pithy (there’s one!) or clever. There’s a misconception that these sorts of words improve your writing, but in reality they create a voice that sounds stiff and formal, like it belongs in the Victorian era. Even if you ARE writing a book set in the Victorian era or earlier, be wary of overusing these words because even historical fiction needs to feel fresh and relatable. Philippa Gregory is a great example of an author who writes historical fiction that feels fresh and relatable while still using language that’s appropriate for the time period she’s writing in.
- It opens with a cliché. There are certain opening scenes that have been done to death. These include: opening with a dream, opening with the main character waking up (and looking in the mirror), opening with a killer stalking his prey. Or it opens with TMI. The reader doesn’t need to know the hair or eye color of your main character. Not at the beginning of the book. Not ever.
- Nothing in the opening few pages grabs my attention. This is one of the most common reasons I pass on a query and one of the hardest to pin down. In queries, I’m always looking for something to surprise me. Some new idea, new image or new way of expressing something that I’ve never heard before. I don’t necessarily mean something weird like an alien cowboy sheriff, (though that would be awesome). What I mean is something special about the writing, something that makes me take notice. If I don’t see that, it’s hard feel motivated to keep reading. I’ve never seen an author’s writing style change or improve as a book progresses, so if I’m not pulled in by the writing initially, I know I won’t be grabbed by it later.