Update that Novel in Your Drawer

Success and Failure by Celestine Chua

Success and Failure by Celestine Chua

Hidden reason your novel gets rejected #253: outdated references.

You have finally built up the courage to submit–at long, long last–that novel you’ve been massaging for ten years. You send queries to hundreds of agents and–oh joy!–several agents ask to see your work! So you send it…and the rejections trickle in.


Agents Turn Down Dated Novels

Of course there are all sorts of reasons your work may be turned down, but if your novel is set in contemporary times, and you haven’t reviewed it closely since pulling it out of the drawer to send, the reason might be very straightforward. And simple to fix.

Ask yourself: If your work is set in the present day, have you updated all the cultural references?

If you set the work in the present day, and one of your characters idly wonders if medical marijuana will ever be legal anywhere in America, you’ve unwittingly sewn the seeds of your own rejection. (Yes, pun intentional. Pause for groan.)

Nobody Wants a Book Others Have Turned Down

A present-day novel with dated cultural references sends this message to agents: You have been shopping the book for years.

Agents don’t expect to be the first to see your work, or even, necessarily, the 20th or 30th to see it. But if we suspect–rightly or wrongly–that you’ve tried everyone else under the sun, and we’re your hail-agent-Mary click, we read your work with an extra dose of skepticism.

In fact, the more we sense the manuscript has been around a while, the more we look for what’s wrong with the novel, rather than what’s right with it.

Fix the References, or Clarify the Setting

Writing is hard; editing is hard. This fix, at least, isn’t. And it’s even kind of fun. Find the cultural references and update them if you must set the novel in the now. Even better, set your story in a specific year–if it’s present day, pick a recent year–get the references right, and you won’t have to update.

It’s good for the book, too. Once published, your readers  won’t feel that vague sense of anachronistic unease.

Books get rejected for all sorts of fuzzy reasons. This is one concrete problem you can painlessly correct. Get Bush out of the White House and your teens off of My Space. You’ll be glad you did.

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