Why Didn’t I Say Yes to Your Novel?

When an agent or editor requests your partial or full manuscript, it’s nerve wracking to wait and wonder, day after day, if they’re reading it and whether they like it. If they finally decide not to offer representation, it hurts and you just want to know… why?

Most agents try to offer some kind of explanation if they’re saying no to a requested manuscript. But giving this kind of feedback is sometimes more difficult than you might think. Each manuscript usually has some good points, and some not-so-good. Often we agonize over our decision. It’s good, but is it good enough? I like it, but will others like it? Are the positives enough to overcome the negatives?

Before I try to analyze exactly what’s going on with a manuscript, I try to experience it as a reader would. I pay attention to my gut as I’m reading.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book and you don’t want to put it down, and you’re really frustrated that it’s time to go make dinner or put the kids to bed, and you just want everyone to leave you alone so you can read your book? And whenever you’re doing something else, you just want to be finished so you can get back to reading your book?

But other times you’re reading a book, and it’s easy to put down. You find yourself distracted. You go check your email, or see what’s on TV. Or fall asleep. Not that you can really define anything bad about the book, it’s simply not holding your attention. And when you have some time to read, you debate whether to go back to that book or not.

I have the same kinds of responses when I’m reading manuscripts, and I’m paying close attention to my responses. Do I want to keep reading? When I’m doing something else, am I eager to get back to reading the manuscript? If not, I will probably pass.

Of course, I can usually identify why the manuscript isn’t keeping my attention. Maybe it’s just plain boring or the writing isn’t good enough. Maybe it starts out strong but then falls apart. Maybe the characters aren’t well-developed. Or the dialogue isn’t working. Or it didn’t feel original. Or any number of other problems. But for me, the yes or no starts in my gut. It’s not scientific, but it’s what I’ve got.

I’m sure you’ve had the same thing happen in areas of your life or work in which you have to rely on your instincts.

Sometimes, I must say no to a novel.

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/VBoa34qcW4w

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. icons pack on October 4, 2012 at 8:12 PM

  2. M. K. Clarke on January 13, 2010 at 9:45 PM

    >I'm a big fan of instincts, as i too, pick my writing references and leisure books this way. I also get my stories this way, and usually, if my instinct tells me this is the one to do, the story itself won't let me go.

    Still one question nags, though: If you know in your gut a book is good and you can't put it down, how would you know that would have the same reaction with someone else? Conversely, if a book is so-so and others things pull you away from it–e-mail, Blackberrys, kids, dinner–who can say for certain this would be the same reaction in anyone else?

    It is a comfort to know a read I'd devise would be one I couldn't put down . . . but I think to add to this, would be another read that you're still thinking about long after you'ce put it down–or while you're making dinner, Blackberry-ing, changing dirty diapers, homeschooling. . . .


  3. Rebecca on January 7, 2010 at 12:01 PM

    >I know exactly what you mean about whether a book stirs my longing or doesn't. thanks for making a comparison that I understand.

  4. Richard Von Wolfgang on January 6, 2010 at 9:30 PM

    >Thanks for sharing!

  5. patriciazell on January 6, 2010 at 8:40 PM

    >Prayer first, then instinct. I'm constantly praying for the people who are in my life, and when I am with people, I constantly look for ways that I can a positive blessing to them.

    As far as reading books goes, I used to read lots of books all the time. However, since I went back to teaching in 2002 and really learned how to use computers, most of my reading is shorter stuff. For me to read a book now, the writing has to draw me in.

  6. CMOM Productions on January 6, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    >Instincts are very important and I completely respect that you, and other agents, follow your gut! If you don't love it, it's not right for you and that makes sense.

  7. Rachelle on January 6, 2010 at 12:12 AM

    >I enjoyed this post. I know what you mean, a book has to call for you. I just finished reading "Uglies" by Scott Westerfield and that book was driving me crazy. I couldn't get the kids to bed quick enough! I had to know what was going to happen.
    In the same vein, if my character's are haunting me as I'm writing their story then I feel like I'm headed in the right direction.
    And instinct–as many have said, being a mom provides so many situations to trust your instinct.
    Thanks for the great advice your blog offers.

  8. Anonymous on January 5, 2010 at 11:08 PM

    I can't let it just ride this time. I am offended at your comment of "Cristian sounding words." As true Christians we should gladly use "CHRISTian words" rather than being conformed to the world: that's what the Bible calls it.
    I love God and want to bring others to salvation the way God tells us to; rather than other "methods" that dishonor our wonderful Lord.

  9. Anonymous on January 5, 2010 at 8:39 PM

    >Obviously Rachelle does not understand: She admits her readers are not all Christians; yet she thinks the unsaved have the Holy Spirit guiding them, since she calls Him simply instinct. The Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Godhead. God gave tha various animals amazing instict; He gives those who accept Christ , the gift of the Holy Spirit. To call the Holy Spirit simply instinct; Rachelle should remove her own comment; it is so terrible. She needs to study up on God's word, and respect it.

  10. Kelly Lyman on January 5, 2010 at 8:24 PM

    >I rely on my instinct when it comes to raising my kids. Was that a real cry or a fake cry? I also use it when I'm leading the teens I work with. It's amazing how so many times I want to jump in a give them a piece of advice, but instinct tells me to keep my mouth shut because there's more coming. I'm usually right.

    Thanks for this post. It was great to hear from the agent side of things.

  11. sarah on January 5, 2010 at 7:30 PM

    >For many years I didn't trust my instincts and I ended up getting into a lot of trouble. Now I do..As a social worker I look beyond people's words to what my gut is picking up. People tell me I have good gut sense.

  12. christa on January 5, 2010 at 7:05 PM

    >I put down The Time-Traveler's Wife after three pages. Guess that's why I'm not an agent. . .

  13. Timothy Fish on January 5, 2010 at 6:31 PM

    >I’m not sure I agree with the instinct/Holy Spirit comparison. Not every spirit is from God, but for that matter, I don’t think God has to tell us what to do in every little activity in our lives. I think he expects us to know what we should do without him having to tell us again.

    As for going with the gut and basing a decision on how willing we are to put a book down, I can see problems with that. When I was a kid, there were books that I loved slipping off into. I would reach the end of the book, turn back to page one and start reading it all over again. I’m not as thrilled about them now, but kids might be. But I also consider some of the stories I either wrote or considered writing a few years ago and though I found it easy to slip into that world then, I have no interest in the story now. The story is no less of a good story now than it was then, but because I’m stressed out about different things now, my choice of worlds to slip into is different. To rely on the gut to know which world readers will want to slip into is to assume that readers are stressed about the same things as one’s self, when in fact some readers are, but others are stressed about other things.

  14. Jil on January 5, 2010 at 5:47 PM

    >I have been teaching English to foreign adults for many years and rely on instinct a lot. Is the loud, domineering Russian who interrupts and is rude to everyone really suffering from loss of self esteem? He who put electrical systems into space ships and hobnobbed with astronauts but is now treated as just an old illiterate in a foreign land. The Chinese woman who spent years in a prison camp but before that worked in the Shanghai museum. Following my instincts makes it possible to help these people become themselves again.
    I also train dogs and, as each is different, instinct is used working with them.
    Trusting this gut feeling is the important thing.

  15. Rachelle on January 5, 2010 at 3:00 PM

    >Anonymous 10:52, I'm sorry my blog disappoints you. If you need a blog that constantly uses Christian-sounding words, then this isn't the place, but there are many other blogs that would be right for you.

    I'm intentional about the words I use, choosing language that is inclusive and understood by all, rather than peppering my prose with "Christian" words that would tend to distance and exclude those who aren't on the same page as me spiritually.

    I say instinct, you say Holy Spirit. Is there a difference? No, not to me. But I choose to let my Christianity come through in my voice and the way I treat people, rather than needing to pound it home in words all the time. I believe I reach more people this way, and this is how God has called me to write.

    Thanks for your perspective. Blessings as you search for blogs that meet your needs.

  16. Rachel on January 5, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    >mothering. totally.

  17. nightwriter on January 5, 2010 at 2:37 PM

    >What about all those agents who passed on novels that later became bestsellers? That shows there's different strokes (books) for different folks and just relying on your personal preference isn't always the best tack. But I'd much rather have an agent who's passionate than one who does a so-so job cuz they think a book will sell.

  18. Tamika: on January 5, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    >The more I mature in Christ the greater my sensitivity is to the Spirit's direction. My impulses wane with every emotion so I try and keep in step through prayer.

    A lot of activities and life moments are built in responses. I don't have to tell myself to blink, just like I don't have to think too long before grabbing my kids from a hot stove.
    Somethings are just natural. Reading is natural, either you love what your reading or you don't. It may be hard to explain why you don't but you know it just didn't do it for you.

  19. Heather on January 5, 2010 at 1:07 PM

    >I rely on instinct a lot, I think–either mine or one of my two good author friends.
    I instinctively know a book is good when I can finish 300 pages in 3 hours.
    As for my writing, I can usually tell a scene is lacking that "something" that makes it pop. That's when I it back and fiddle with the bouncy balls, squishy balls, and slinkies scattered on my desk while brainstorming the scene. If I'm still stuck, I call/email my writing buddies and ask for their help.
    And even when the scene is edited to my heart's content, it still has to past muster with my two first readers.

  20. Scott on January 5, 2010 at 1:07 PM

    >I think life is pretty much about relying on our instinct. I know the few times I've ignored my instinct, bad things have happened.

    The gut sometimes knows what the mind isn't willing to accept.

    Most times, I can pretty much tell if I'm going to like the book by reading the first few pages. The one exception: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. This is one of my all time favorite books, and yet it took me almost three years before I actually read the book. I couldn't get past the first chapter. When I finally did . . . oh, wow, fantastic. So, my instinct to quit reading was a little bit off . . . on that one!


  21. Anonymous on January 5, 2010 at 12:52 PM

    >This blog, I thought, was mostly Christians. Why is it you don't talk more about relying on the Holy Spirit? Are you familiar with God's Holy Spirit? I know there are a few commenters that tell about God doing wonerful things. But overall this site is often a big disappoinment to me. Mrs. Anonymous this time.

  22. Jana Dean on January 5, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    >Its about taking all the training and practice then pounding the XXX out of it with your instinct.

    That's why we call it art.

  23. hollywoodclown on January 5, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    >Rachelle et al,

    I'm new to the Literary world and I can't thank you all enough for your insights. I've been acting in L.A. for almost 18yrs so I'm very used to hearing "no" or nothing at all. The latter being the most common. So, as far as the rejection part of the lit business, I'm happy to hear anything, including a rejection. Of course I would prefer to hear a yes, who wouldn't. I not only want a "yes" but I want an enthusiastic "yes".

    I was going to email a bunch of agents before the new year, then something happened. A little feeling in my gut said, "Wait." I did, and I'm glad I followed my instincts, my "inner voice", because someone came to me. Someone who showed a hint of enthusiasm for my book and it may lead to a VERY good agent. We'll see, the unknown can be exciting.

    Before I go I just have to say to Joanne@ Blessed, I'm so right there with you. I found myself getting sick of my manuscript every time I read it. When I read it, I'm saying to myself, "am I entertained?" I find that I'm always editing it. I have to have my wife read everything as I edit it so that she can tell me if my changes are justified. I'm sure she's also sick of it. If anyone has any suggestions on how to cure this PLEASE let me know.

    Happy New Year!

  24. A.L. Sonnichsen on January 5, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    >Rachelle, Thanks for the post. I do need to remind myself that agents have to go by their gut and only with projects that they're passionate about. Really, as a writer I wouldn't want it any other way. Do you think it's mostly or partly a connection with a main character? The reason I ask is because it seems like a lot of agents ask for revisions of a manuscript before it goes to submission. Sometimes those revisions are extensive. I guess the agent has to have a passion for the ms, but also a vision. And that can't happen with every single parital or full you request. I think it's easier to take a rejection of a partial or full when the agent says "This just isn't right for me" than when the agent gives this or that minor reason. While I sincerely appreciate the feedback, my next thought is: well, I could easily fix that (and often I do — or, at least, try to). But I think you're right. Regardless of this or that reason, it comes down to the passion the agent has for the work and their gut instinct about it.

    Sorry for the ramble. This is good therapy for me to get this all worked out in my own head. Thanks again for the thought-provoking post.

  25. T. Anne on January 5, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    >I rely heavily upon that gut feeling when I edit. I hope my novel will speak to someone, but alas we all have different taste in books. I'm OK with rejection. The writer in me seems to be built for endurance. I do appreciate feedback. I'd rather hear it straight, even if it's hard to take.

  26. Dee S. on January 5, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    >I rely on instinct when deciding if I should take a client and also keep a client. In PR, especially literary PR, you have to love the book or believe that the book is important enough to be shared. However, that doesn't mean that you and your client will see to eye to eye. I have had to end contracts and say no to clients, because my gut told me that they would be more harmful for the company and my other clients(including my media clients) than good.

    Moreover, I think authors need to rely on instinct when selecting agents and publishers for their books. If an agent, doesn't respond to your submission after at least six months, then your gut should tell you that the agent or editor doesn't want your book and you should rejoice about it. If they hadn't taken the time to email your a rejection by then, then don't know or care how to support you anyway. It could be a blessing in disguise…

  27. Roxane B. Salonen on January 5, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    >Rachelle, I've learned to listen to my guts more with relationships. I used to not pay attention to red flags. I wanted to give everyone and their dog a chance, and to like everyone. That's just not possible, and realizing this has freed me. Now I pay very close attention to those gut feelings when meeting new people, and this wisdom has helped in other areas as well. I can see how it definitely applies to your job, in which you have to sift through the piles. Also, I don't want my book to be a snoozer, so I'm glad any prospective agent wouldn't settle for that either. One esteemed editor though once told me sometimes it depends on what you had for lunch that day. Hopefully if that's the case and a reject comes becomes of it, another editor or agent will not have indigestion the day he/she reads my work. 🙂

  28. AmyBoucherPye on January 5, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    >I'm just reading The Noonday Demon by Kathleen Norris for the book club I run for the Christian womens' magazine here in the UK. I chose it last month, finding the subject matter intriguing (sloth, or soul weariness). And now I am reading it, and wishing I didn't have to. She has some good things to say, but the book is too long by at least a third and I find the editor in me thinking of ways to 'fix' it… A trait I try not to employ when I'm reading.

    So you are right to trust these instincts when reading a potential ms. I'm wishing I was more disciplined to read the books before I choose them for the book club, but perhaps that is the beauty of a book club – you're forced into finishing a book that perhaps you wouldn't have otherwise finished.

  29. lauradroege on January 5, 2010 at 11:14 AM

    >I've learned to rely on my instincts regarding people. I used to dismiss negative impressions I had of others (particularly men), but I learned the hard way that my instincts were correct: these men weren't to be trusted. Ditto for a situation at a previous church: I felt there was something "off" (though no one else felt it) and several years later, my hunch was verified when some painful truths came out. Sad.

  30. Marisa Birns on January 5, 2010 at 11:06 AM

    >Whenever I don't pay attention to intuition, I regret it; it's very easy to talk oneself out of those very good first impressions.

    I've found that forcing myself to continue reading a book in the hopes that it "gets better for me" never works; it doesn't.

    As a writer, hope that my stories will keep people from taking the time to cook dinner! 🙂

  31. Philangelus on January 5, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    >I rely on instinct a lot in the mom realm. I rely on it when cooking. I rely on it in my spiritual life more than I probably ought to (but maybe God talks to me through that.)

    But definitely in writing fiction, I feel that instinct. If I planned for my character to do X, but the character keeps swinging out to do Y instead, I have to ask myself what's making that happen. A lot of times, I instinctively knew that forcing the character to adhere to the plot outline was going to compromise the character, and therefore gave the character free rein to do what my instincts told me ought to happen.

    So I can fully believe in the agent having that same instinct. The silly thing about instinct is we can't verbalize why we feel what we do, only that we are right and we know we are right.

  32. Fawn Neun on January 5, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    >I was doing some slush reading for our little literary magazine and we got in a short story that I didn't think I'd care for. I gave it a couple of paragraphs – and simply could NOT stop reading. I didn't think I'd like it. I didn't even want to like it. But I couldn't STOP reading it. By the end, I found I was holding my breath. Of course I accepted it.

    My instincts said to stick with it after the first awkward paragraph. It turned out to be a bloody roller-coaster ride.

  33. Mira on January 5, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    >Yes – I know for me, I make decisions as much on instinct and values as on logic. It's under-valued in this culture, but intuition can be dead on target, for those of us who are intuitive sorts.

    And I agree – I think the real test of a fictions book's readability is not only that it pulls the reader into it's world, but the reader then doesn't want to leave that world until the book is done. Maybe not even then. 🙂

    A book that you can't put down – if that experience is shared by other people – in that they can't put the book down either – well, that's a best-seller, imho.

  34. Kristen Torres-Toro on January 5, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    >Yes! Instincts are so important! I try to listen to mine whenever possible. I don't think I've ever been wrong when I followed them (but I've been wrong a lot when I haven't)!

  35. Keli Scrapchansky on January 5, 2010 at 9:28 AM

    >Parenting. Before my first child turned one, I consumed parenting books like they were my lifeblood. Inevitably, they left me feeling inept, guilty, and generally anxious. It was my husband that clued me in with the gentle reminder to just go with my gut and stop worrying about someone else's opinion of what being a good parent was all about. So far, so good (the teenage years have yet to hit, though).

  36. Katy McKenna on January 5, 2010 at 7:48 AM

    >Elder care requires me to rely on gut feelings much of the time. As durable power of attorney for my mother, I'm often in the position of making snap decisions based on a phone call from a nurse's aide, who's attempting to describe Mom's condition. Old people are notoriously unreliable witnesses when it comes to their own medical situation. I have to instinctively figure out when things aren't what they seem—or when they are something much more—and behave according to my best judgment. I've saved Mom's life with quick action more than once, but I've also totally missed cues that a more astute (or awake, ha!) caregiver would have picked up on. That said, three cheers for gut instincts!!

  37. Krista Phillips on January 5, 2010 at 7:24 AM

    >I can totally see where instinct would play a huge part in it. There are so many "good" books that sit on my shelf that sit on my shelf half read because I just can't finish them.

    Some of it is just personal preference though, but personally, I'd want my agent to enjoy reading my book not have to make themselves get through it.

    Agree with Jessica's comment… dealing with kiddos requires a LOT Of instinct and going with the gut. I gotta say, I probably get it wrong much of the time though.

  38. Jessica on January 5, 2010 at 6:58 AM

    >Not sure how often I follow my gut. I have toddlers though, so there's a certain level of anticipation. Say, when the house grows quiet, then I know I better run and find my "terrible" two year old. LOL!

    I love this post. I've found myself thinking about my manuscript alot, worrying, and I love this reminder that it's like reading a book. Who hasn't picked up a book their friend loved, only to find it hard to get through? I sure have.

    The guy who rehabilitates made a really interesting comment!

  39. Shelby on January 5, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    >My instinct is often right. I don't think I use it so much at work, 'cause my work is rather cut and dry.. but at reading I use it.. or choosing books to read at the bookstore.

    I often go to the bookstore and order a cup of coffee, browse the shelves, pick up a book and go sit- and read.

    Instinct tells me which book to pick up from the cover–does the cover grab me for some unknown but swell reason.. do the blurbs on the back beckon me to read on.. do I know the authors who are blurbing.. where is the author from.. what's his/her background.

    I rarely read the first few sentences first. I'll open to the middle or to the first third of the book and just read a paragraph or two.. if I like it, I might then read the first page.

    If I still like it, I'll go sit down and read it.

    If I can't put it down – I'm hooked.

    If it's boring, I move on to the next.

  40. Buffy Andrews on January 5, 2010 at 6:31 AM

    >Totally rely on instinct. Just yesterday I was talking to one of my reporters about a story and I told her "to follow your instinct. Listen to that little voice inside of you." So, yeah, I'd say I follow my instincts all the time, even when I don't like what that little voice has to say.

  41. Joanne@ Blessed... on January 5, 2010 at 5:02 AM


    I'm smack dab in the middle of what you are explaining – waiting for a yes or no from a publisher. It's a difficult place to be.

    As far as a writer's instinct, I have read my manuscript so many times, even I am sick of it.

    My human instinct was perfected on November 10th, 1991 the moment I became a mom. This has helped me in my part-time job where I need it most, as a police/911 dispatcher.

  42. Steve on January 5, 2010 at 5:00 AM

    >Troubleshooting computer problems often relies on intuition, although informed by logic. This may seem odd. In principle, a computer is a completely knowable system, subject to exhaustive analysis on a strictly logical basis. In reality, the information you might need to do that "exhaustive logical analysis" is not so much unavailable-in-principle as too costly in time and effort to access. So one guesses. I'm considered good at what I do because I guess right a lot. 🙂


  43. Maureen Hume on January 5, 2010 at 4:04 AM

    >All writers have to handle rejection and it's never an easy thing. Of course writers know that for whatever reason their ms simply wasn't good enough or right enough. But to hear a rejecter say they often agonize over their decision is a bit of comfort.
    Maureen. http://www.thepizzagang.com

  44. Andrew on January 5, 2010 at 3:46 AM

    >Working with and rehabilitating former fighting dogs can be similar. You have to rely entirely on gut feelings; granted, these are based on observed body language (and perhaps a 'sixth sense' communication) but the processing and evaluation of the data are handled by the subconscious. If you have to stop to think you can get shredded (I have had my nose reattached).

    The interesting part is that you often have a very limited perspective; say, looking down on the animal's back. You learn to get the gut call from just a subtle tensing of the shoulders (I surmise), or a slight movement of the head and ears.

    This may beg the question, why do it?

    Because everyone deserves a second chance.

  45. Aimee LS on January 5, 2010 at 3:06 AM

    >You're right to compare this to the reader experience. That's what we writers have to remember: We aren't paying to read the words, someone else is. It has to sing to them, not to us.

  46. Chutzpah on January 5, 2010 at 2:03 AM

    >Thank you for having a blog. Finding an agent is hard. And it's really nice to be able to learn more and understand the process from the other side, not just sitting there going "Gah, another no! Back to the drawing board…" This is very helpful.