For an aspiring writer, rejections become a regular part of life. That sounds a bit depressing, doesn’t it? It isn’t really. There are moments, of course, but reading and writing are so subjective that it is impossible for everyone to like your book. I’m fairly notorious for not finishing a book I’m reading if I’m not into it, and I’m only reading for pleasure and not counting on the story to be a lucrative part of my livelihood. (Anyone else like this, by the way? I know some people finish a book even if they detest it.)
The first query letter I ever sent was rejected within two days, through a very nice form letter email. I was borderline devastated for the rest of the day. Even though I knew that the chances of landing an agent from my first query were about as good as 50 Shades of Grey winning a Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s scary at first to ask a professional to consider your precious manuscript. Luckily, you develop a tough skin pretty quickly.
Soon, the rejections just roll off, like water on a duckling’s back.
Okay, maybe not quite that easily, and certainly not in such a ridiculously adorable fashion, but it gets a lot easier. In some ways, the worst rejections are the ones that never come. About half the agents do not reply to queries unless interested, because they get so many and are so busy.
I think form rejection letters generally fall into four categories (that I just invented right now):
Polite & Neutral
“Thank you for thinking of me with this. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite what I’m looking for at this time so I’m afraid I’ll have to pass.”
Variations of this are the most common responses, and that’s fine. This letter accomplishes all it needs to. Sometimes they’ll have another line that reminds the writer that publishing is a highly subjective business. This is true, and it’s why a writer should never take a rejection letter personally.
Encouraging, but still vague enough to be a form response
“Thanks so much for sharing your novel with us. There was much we liked about this–it’s a great concept and your writing is strong. And yet, I’m sorry to report that we simply didn’t fall in love, in the end. While I wish I had better news, know that we’ll be cheering you on from here, and wish you all the best.”
These ones are kind of funny. At first, you feel buoyed up (my writing is strong! Yay!), and then after you’ve read it about forty more times, it dawns on you that there is no real constructive feedback and you don’t know where to go or what to do next. Remember, subjective industry! It’s nice to read these little compliments over again later though, if you got a particularly brusque rejection.
Which brings us to…
“Not for me, thanks.”
My first reaction to this: “What? WHAT? It’s not a dish of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner, it’s my book! My masterpiece! My precioussss!”
But then, after I ate some delicious mashed potatoes, I decided I kind of liked this rejection. It’s short, it doesn’t waste time, and you know that the agent typed it out right after considering the query letter, instead of inserting some kind of form signature. Plus, I think this one came back within a few hours. Patience is not one of my attributes, so I liked the short wait.
Since this sort of fits into the third category, I almost didn’t list it separately. But I decided to, because sometimes the feedback is so vague that it’s probably best not to stress over it, no matter how much your first instinct is to freak out. I had this one happen to me after getting a rejection on a full request. (Note: this was all email correspondence).
Agent: Thanks for the read. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite grab me in the way that I was hoping, so I’m afraid I’ll have to pass.
Now, I had received some feedback previously that the voice was anachronistic, so I wondered if it was the same scenario here, and wrote back to the agent, even though I normally wouldn’t respond to a rejection. Since it had been a full request, I figured it would be okay. I wouldn’t have replied to a query rejection.
Me: Thanks very much for taking the time to have a look. Would you mind letting me know if it was the voice? I know you are very busy, but would very much appreciate any additional feedback you could share.
Agent: “Hmm…yes, I suppose it could be more masculine.”
I was afraid to wholly trust this feedback. I am a woman who wrote in the voice of a man for Red Sky, so it could have been a valid point. The “hmm” made me pause, though; it sounded too spontaneous, like not much thought had been put into the rest of the comment. And the fact that my husband gallantly defended the voice when I told him about this also made me hesitant to dive into making big manuscript changes. I kept it in mind when I did some revisions but tried not to worry about it too much unless I got similar feedback from someone else. (I think you know the mantra by now…subjective industry. We should make a song about this. Maybe to the Spiderman theme?)
Anyway, I guess the lesson with this one is to always take feedback with a grain of salt, and remember that one person’s opinion is not the same as everybody else’s. Interestingly, after I signed with my agent and we did a couple of rounds of revisions, I think I did figure out what this other agent meant, and it wasn’t lacking masculinity in the voice. It was actually the unexpected view of Blackbeard as more of a schemer than a stabber. I had to re-write some of the beginning to help readers know what to expect right from the start. And, to be honest, since it’s still on submission, I likely have more revisions in my future!
Altogether, I sent out about 80 queries for Red Sky. About half or so were no responses, a few were partial or full requests, and the rest were rejections.
Since it led to signing with an agent, the best response I received was this one:
“I was intrigued by your query and sample chapters and would love to see the
completed manuscript. Please send it to me in an email as a Word doc
I also ask that if you receive an offer of representation while I am
considering your project, please inform me and give me time to
I look forward to reading more of your work!”
It was also the last, because even though I had some queries still outstanding without a response, for some reason no one replied to me at all after this. Just as well, though!
The two greatest lessons I learned from querying – don’t take rejections personally (they’re not), and to remember that no matter how many rejections you rack up, it only takes one offer to turn them all into proof that you’re strong enough to keep following your dream. Even Harry Potter got rejections.
This has been pretty long, so I may as well add one more paragraph for a random musing: is it just me, or does anyone else wonder why Madam Pomfrey can regrow the bones in Harry’s arm overnight, but she can’t fix his eyes so he doesn’t need glasses?