How do you know that a rejection is a sign to keep going? The personalized rejection can give you some hope.
With 113 rejections in this last round of querying, I’ve developed some theories about what constitutes an authentic and individualized response versus a template goodbye.
So what’s a personalized rejection? A personalized rejection
Here are some form responses and some personalized ones.
We’re sorry, but your project is not a fit for our agency at this time, so we will have to pass. Thank you for considering us and best of luck with your future queries.
Though there appears to be a specific reference to the manuscript in this one below, it’s a form response that really doesn’t offer a specific compliment.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider NO SMALL THING. I’m sorry to say that while there was a lot of creativity here, I didn’t connect with the writing in the way that I needed to in order to be the right agent to champion this work. As you know, these decisions are largely subjective and another agent or editor may have an opinion completely different from mine. Thank you again for thinking of me and best of luck with your future queries.
Thank you for reaching out! Your project sounds very cool, but unfortunately doesn’t feel like the right fit for me, as I don’t find myself especially drawn in by sports-themed storylines on the whole.
Thanks for your query. Sorry to say this is a pass for me. I’m particularly un-sporty and find sports-related things difficult to relate to. I’m the wrong agent for this.
“It’s Not You, It’s Me” argument in these two personalized responses can be taken as a go-ahead to look more closely for those agents who are “sporty.” It’s very helpful when you’re racking up rejections and see this glimmer of an indication that maybe it’s not all you. Maybe you need to narrow your focus. For example, in order to find “sporty,” I started looking for agents who had repped nonfiction sports as well as YA)
But ones like these, that are actual light at the end of the tunnel, are even better:
Thanks for reaching out about NO SMALL THING. I love your voice, but I didn’t fall head over heels for the premise on this one, so I have to step aside. I know it’s tough when your agent leaves the business, and I am certain you’ll be snapped up by an agent soon. And please know that I’d be happy to consider any future projects you may have.
This agent not only liked my voice, but she wanted to see anything else I wrote. That is not usually something you hear in form rejections.
Or even the one that comes at the end of an agent reading the full manuscript. (One that got 9 requests for fulls. This manuscript had already been on submission to 11 editors with my second agent.)
Unfortunately, AGENT X cannot offer representation at this time. While you’re clearly a very talented writer, the submission list for NO SMALL THING is fairly extensive and we’re not sure we have the editorial vision to give the book the edge it so richly deserves.
You will see a range of things in this business–agents who submit to over 30 editors, and those who won’t submit to more than 15. Knowing which kind of agent you’ve landed is important if you want your agent to query in multiple rounds several editors before stopping.
This is obviously only one opinion, and we wish you the best of luck!
I have to end with a form rejection that really summed up for me what are the challenges in this industry. As author and writing coach Lisa Cron (Story Genius) recently shared on the Literaticast podcast (with agent Jennifer Laughran) it’s damn difficult—and unfair—how few great books make it through the agent or editor gauntlet.
“97 out of 100 people who sit down to write a first draft don’t make it to the end…3 people out of 100 are going to make that first draft. When you take that 3 percent and winnow that down to the number that do several drafts and really decide to pitch to an editor or an agent…The statistic I’ve heard out there is that 96% of that remaining 2% get rejected….How many really great manuscripts never see the light of day…It’s a crap shoot. It really is a crap shoot.”
If that’s true (and I believe it is, as I shared in my Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business confessional), then this form response sums it up from an agent perspective:
Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that NO SMALL THING is a good fit for my list at this time. Please remember that the decision to represent writing is based on a lot of factors, which are often difficult to qualify. Passion for a project, connection with voice, current workload, market saturation, concept timeliness; all of these are considerations, in addition to the quality of your writing. If you continue to work on your craft, to query widely, and to research your potential agents and intended market, I am confident you will find the right match.
This agent was correct.
I did continue to work on my craft (a new project).
I did continue to query widely.
I did continue to research potential agents and intended market.
And eventually, I did indeed find the right match!
Thanks, Tara, for being “sporty”–and a great team player in this effort to launch NO SMALL THING!
I’m so excited to announce that I am now represented by Tara Gelsomino of One Track Literary Agency!
What a journey! Sigh of Relief + Dance of Joy doesn’t capture the many feelings of landing here after a #neverthelessshepersisted trek in the trenches…and for, yes, the third time. (If you need to hear some of the saga, enjoy this post: Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business.)
Here’s how I know Tara will be awesome to work with.
When she wrote me about NO SMALL THING, my YA novel, she said:
“I’m so excited to tell you that I really loved the story. I love Audrey’s fire and competence and confidence (even in very frightening situations). I love the light you’re shining here on the disparity in women’s and men’s teams treatment, and the corruption and unfairness of the NCAA/NBA climb that most people don’t get to witness and don’t really know about. I love the ethics in journalism plot line and how the bitter reality of…deception forges Audrey’s faith in herself. For me, this evoked the big social issues of Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give with the fan fervor of Friday Night Lights with the additional investigative drive of The Post, Spotlight, or All the President’s Men, which I found to be an exciting and fresh combo.”
When an agent is as much on fire as you are about your story, time to do your dance thing!
And then you should hear what her authors say about her!
“I couldn’t be happier with Tara as my agent. I liked that she had a background as an editor and wanted to be part of the writing process—something I was looking for in an agent. What impressed me the most, however, was that she wasn’t afraid to dream big for me, and it paid off. She was able to get me a three-book preemptive deal…
“What else can I tell you? Tara is a great cheerleader, is available whenever I need her, responds very quickly when I email her, and is full of amazing ideas for marketing and publicity. If you’re looking for an agent that will provide personalized attention, you’ll get it with Tara!”
“If you prefer hands-on, editorial agents, then Tara certainly fits the bill. Her experience as an editor really shows. She’ll brainstorm with clients, and offer detailed comments in drafts, partials, and proposals.”
I heard more stories of deals, right, and support with social media.
Suffice it to say, I am so excited.
My mom says Tara is a good name for me, because I already know some amazing Taras!
More to come later…there are many querying journey stories to tell, and I want to tell them to help so many others who feel they are languishing in the trenches. I have things to say about query stats and why they matter, and about how you get beyond the frustrations of knocking so much on what seems like a barred door.
Time to get to work!
Never, ever, ever give up. You might just have a Tara at the end of a long, dark night!
When your agent leaves the business, what do you do?
In June I wrote my friend and YA author Gordon Jack when I was in the bluest, most Anne Shirley depths of despair. “My agent is leaving the business,” I said, feeling as if I were delivering the worst and most shameful of news. Maybe it was because Gordon and I had slogged together in the querying mines many moons ago, and after many rejections, he now not only has an agent but also a two-book deal from HarperCollins. (Check out The Boomerang Effect in its awesomeness and satirical humor about high school homecomings and pre-order Your Own Worst Enemy if you need a good laugh about high school elections. Trust me: you’ll want it before midterms.)
Me, I’d worked in the last ten years with a first agent, and then worked with a second agent who was amazing, and together we had two different books on sub to editors. Two books I poured my heart and four years into, books that she edited like a goddess.
Now, the day of my writing Gordon, I had none of these things.
I expected support and empathy from him, which I definitely got, and then he said:
“You know I’m on my third agent, right?”
I’d totally forgotten this—how his first agent left the business, how another parted ways with him amicably after not being able to sell his first novel, and how today, he’s represented by a great agent. In my self-pity, fear, and worry, I’d forgotten just how tough his road was to publication. I got starry eyed when I heard “book deal” and forgot how fraught and undependable the rest of the process was and is.
I also forgot all the books I’ve published as an indie author and what readers tell me about them. Somehow, I shoved any good thing that’s ever happened, that I’ve ever done, aside to dwell on what couldn’t seem to happen now.
Best-selling authors V.E. Schwab and Stephanie Garber recently shared their powerful stories about transitions with agents and publishers on the podcast 88 Cups of Tea. Then the other day, another friend with 10+ books published told me after I shared my tale that her agent, a person she loved, just retired.
In other words, it happens. A lot.
This was one of many messages I and other authors recently shared at the North Carolina Writers’ Network publishing panel, Patience, Passion, Strategy: Choosing Your Publishing Path and Finding an Agent. Nancy Peacock related how she had to part ways with her first agent and how her current agent helps her now. Russell Johnson shared how 150 queries and querying different novels found him his current agent. Stephanie Moore, a successful screenwriter, talked about how she once had two agents—one film, one fiction–and just parted ways with her fiction agent. She and I both just applied to Pitch Wars. Tara Lynne Groth is just embarking on her query journey and has a strategy you should check out. If one clear message came through from all of us, it’s that this business is full of variables and constant change. It demands great patience and great adaptability.
I got the courage to tell my story at this same panel—courage, because so much social media, my own included, is full of self-praise and celebration, as if nothing ever goes wrong. I mentioned the journey of the last decade. I also shared this quote:
“If I stop one person from quitting by being transparent,
then I’m doing a good thing.”
– V.E. Schwab
I shared the formula I’ve found—it takes talent and perseverance and luck, AKA timing and/or connections and/or resources. When I mentioned that formula to the friend whose agent just retired, offering this formula as if required all equal-part ingredients, she laughed and said, “Oh, it’s more than 50% luck.”
So if that is indeed the case, then luck shows up for those who show up all the time, right?
I won’t stop showing up.
“Success is a thing so largely out of our control.
Overnight Success is almost always a myth.
Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit.”
– V.E. Schwab
In a future post I’ll talk in more detail about my Swing Away campaign (and much thanks to Liz Gilbert for helping me come up with the right tagline). How I’m back in the querying saddle again, using Publisher’s Marketplace, Manuscript Wish List & #MSWL website, and QueryTracker. I’ve got my agent lists, my query polished to a high shine, my synopsis, and a more-than-ready manuscript for my latest book. My first book is getting another look as well, and it actually may get a lot better thanks to that second look. When we began subbing it out in 2016, #MeToo and Trump had not yet happened, and when you write a book about journalism and sexual assault, it needs to be timely and eternal. I have some ideas for some upgrades.
It’s all good, as they say around here in North Carolina (draw out “good” to a three-syllable word, if you please). I mean like my husband’s song, “It’ll Be Alright.” I’ve got ideas for what to do should none of this work out, and 50 pages of a brand-new novel I’m very excited about. A lot is happening in my life right now, and it’s all happening for very good reason.
If you’re in the middle of a deep valley of Writer’s Limbo…and if that valley is storm-cloud full of the shadows of death, here’s what Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear that helped me. Why must you do this writing thing? Can you ever NOT write? Try to stop. I can’t.
Look what I wrote when I already had an agent and was beginning the book that I had to discard and start over and that just got subbed out—and am now querying again. I had to find a way then to keep going with a brand-new project, even as my baby I’d spent three years on was being subbed out. The writing challenges never end.
Embrace and adore the bumps as much as the tiny bits of glory that come your way. You must find, as Gilbert says, just which “flavor of shit sandwich” you prefer.
Because trust: that person who tells you it’s all one big glory ride? Who has nothing but great news to share? They’re either extremely lucky, or they are lying.
Did you know there’s even a hangout spot on Twitter for those rejected? #ShareYourRejections
“This is an opaque industry. It’s designed to make you feel like an island. So that when something goes wrong, you feel like the only one going through it. The pressure on authors is to put forth only good news.
You must come in with the mental and psychological preparation.”
– V.E. Schwab
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins.
Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”
– James Baldwin in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review
All you storytellers out there? Hang tight. Stick with it. It’s all going to be okay.
More than halfway through my latest novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I keep going. Writing is a business full of few favors, lucky breaks, or sudden hits.
One thing I’ve figured out after many years in this game is that defeat is my fuel.
Wins? They’re my booster rockets.
Whatever you’re striving for now, how have you transformed defeat?
We’re all charmed by the debut novelist’s story, that bestseller so swift and effortless in its rise. It’s the Very American Dream of Young Thing Makes It Big. We’re most thrilled by the young and pretty ones who finish first, and we’re much less curious about the marathoners right behind them—sweaty ones who’ve been in this game a while.
I have a writer friend who “hate reads” work by celebrity authors under 30. She’s not yet 35. I laugh and tease her about it and yet I completely understand. The nature of this game inspires envy and competition. Hard work and all the countless hours logged while your skin wrinkles and your hair grays—that’s not a sexy story that our culture tends to celebrate. And if that’s where you’re living, in Hard Work World, it’s easy to believe no one really cares about what you’re up to.
The publishing race is a very narrow path, the tightest of pipelines, and so where the marathon metaphor breaks down is the assumption that the first to finish is always the best.
Actually, all those bringing up the rear might be bearing gems—it’s just they can’t get attention. Publishers tend to look backwards when gambling on a book—what’s hot now? What’s the trend? Let’s go with what worked before.
Most of us who make it go hard and get defeated for years. Not just two or three. Decades, friends. Decades of hearing no or not now.
Like one editor said about my novel, @NervesofSteel, that’s been on submission:
Both hazing and sexual abuse in its many insidious forms are issues that are important to me to talk about, and feel especially important with the public conversations happening right now. But I want to approach the topic with care, as much as I also want to support transparency…I don’t think I’m the right one to champion it—and I fully believe a project like this deserves to have a champion.
Now I could take this feedback and tell myself to shy away from tough topics like hazing and sexual abuse. They’re a hard sell, right?
But instead I say to myself: This is not defeat. This is a chance to find a way to write about these issues so that editors want to sell it. How do I do that?
Or maybe it’s my strong genes of Italian rage that makes me throw these gesticulating hands in the air and holler
Minerva, AKA @NervesofSteel, she deserves a home!
Trust she’ll get one, one day. Getting mad revs me up and sends me back into the fray.
The trick is in believing your art is meant to be. Refuse to believe you’re cursed, that you’re destined for last, or that your work has no place in the world.
There are signs to quit, and there are signs to keep going.
Maybe I should have seen the 100-some rejections back in 2009-2010 from various agents as a sign that a) I’d never get an agent and b) just go ahead and accept defeat.
Instead I paid close attention to the personalized rejections, the request for partial reads, and the requests for full reads. I took notes, asked questions, and kept querying.
In 2010, I signed with my first agent.
But maybe I should have really seen the signs back in 2011 when she missed several emails and I had to re-send them. When she tended to speak in generalities when reading my work, saying, “Where’s the story?” instead of “Try this/fix this.” I started to question my novel. Maybe my writing wasn’t worth attention if she didn’t answer my emails or couldn’t tell me exactly what to edit. Maybe I needed to take the hint and stop? (The same book we were ripping up, it was a runner-up in the 2011 James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest.) Maybe I should have packed it all in right then.
Instead I did three rounds of revision with her and when there was no sign the book was going to get subbed out, I chose to part ways, amicably. I knew in my gut the latest revision was worth something, and that it was time to tie a bow on it and go indie.
So I applied for a Elizabeth George Foundation grant and received a large one.
I used those funds to build a professional website, to fund the publishing of three books—developmental editors, copy editors, cover designers, and book formatters—and to fund a book trailer.
And that’s just the novelist part of my journey.
Parallel to all this, I was writing literary short stories, study short stories in my own private, personalized MFA program, and querying various literary magazines. Maybe I should’ve seen the signs screaming STOP when I struck out on several magazines—sometimes waiting six months to a year to hear—or hearing nothing.
Instead I listened to the times I became a finalist in contests—like “The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future” winning first prize with AROHO and funding my first Macbook Air, which felt light as a feather and sticks with me to this day. That same story just made it last month to the quarter-finals of the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story contest.
I didn’t make it to the semifinals, but guess what? I’ve entered a few more contests. My short stories have won and placed before. Don’t stop believing.
Or there was a time I got a call from Stanford Magazine. That short story that didn’t win our creative writing contest, might there be a potential memoir piece buried there, one you’d be willing to try? the editor asked.
I’m in, I said. The editor saw the autobiography within. That led to “Gramma’s Day.”
Maybe all the stresses of the day job and step parenting—countless frustrations and fails on those landscapes—should have told me to ease up, relax, and chill on my weekends instead of scraping and scrapping after this writer’s dream.
Instead I held book signings and entered contests and applied for grants.
Maybe my indie publishing experience, which has taught me that no matter how great you think your books might be, you must have the time and resources to market and promote—maybe that realization should have shown me the door to this business. Hey, you! Woman with the day job, you don’t have time to write and hawk your wares. Try something else.
But instead of writing all my indie work off, I used it as part of my bio to query agents again with the latest novel. And after many a query, I landed my amazing agent, Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency.
Now I get not only timely critiques that made @NervesofSteel and my current project, No Small Thing, tons better, but I also get an answer to my email in under 48 hours—usually 24. Stunning. I watched her sub out a book we both believed in all last year—always its champion.
No Small Thing right now might be the next big thing. Gambling on it.
I’m still at this? Are you?
Or watch some athletes tell you how to make defeat your fuel. Michael Jordan and Serena Williams and Peyton Manning all get you to your feet in this video about how losing can be the biggest motivator.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
Remember that famous line from Professor Marvel while he scrambles in his hidden cubby to yank levers and work a mic that make the big and scary Wizard of Oz bellow?
In the world of Authors Ready to Query, Professor Marvel = author and his little cubby, the real deal of the novel. Bear with me here. You might not see it just yet.
The Scarecrow calls him a humbug. Dorothy informs him he’s a very bad man. Professor Marvel’s built a huge fantasy that’s terrorized and controlled a city for ages, never mind our four adventurers, and they’re more than mad.
But man, what a show it was, right? Dude, that took some doing! I who’s watched this film probably over 50 times has a different take: all the machinery Professor Marvel had to set up to fool so many was actually quite impressive. He took an idea and an opportunity and built a whole narrative. And all of Emerald City bought the story.
When we shop out a novel to agents, we better have a man behind the curtain. I’m talking tons of levers and smoke machines and mics and amplifiers. The bones of the thing must be strong and all the buttons need to fire at just the right times.
When an agent starts reading beyond page 10, things better be more than spell checked. When someone yanks aside that curtain, there’d better be something there.
It’s tempting to start querying before you’re done-done. By that I mean, on a third or fourth draft. Beta read and tested and reworked after that. Unless you’ve been cranking out books for years, you need to pace yourself and make sure all the wiring works and the nuts and bolts are tight. Developmental editors and beta readers are key to this endeavor, and they do cost. Either in cash or time—editors, professional ones, will need to be paid, and if you don’t offer your beta readers a token gift, you should definitely swap with your own beta reading time.
Before I signed with Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency, I worked with editor Angelle Pilkington. She saved my story from the muck and mire where it was frankly wallowing. I couldn’t see how to take it to the next level. Angelle helped me remove the first third and make the action urgent. By the time I queried Amy, I had a fourth draft of my novel truly ready for agent eyes. Now Amy gets all the fun of helping me wade and fortunately she’s got thigh-high boots for the gig.
Here are elements of substance expected in the YA world. Your genre may have different features, but good writing cuts across forms. And let me assume that when you decide to query an agent you are looking to build a career with some commercial success—i.e., some revenue for all this effort—and therefore you care what the market will bear and what the purveyors of literature think.
A career is built on substantive work. In this age of people cranking out a book a month, know the truth: unless you’ve got elves, you need time and grit and devotion to build a book. From cornerstone to roof, the thing’s gotten stand for the ages. So if it’s daunting to consider all this work, ask yourself: am I in this for the long haul? Do I want to build books forever?
No one ever gives Toto any credit, but if he hadn’t yanked aside that green silk curtain, we’d never know, would we? Know that the agent is even more dogged than a cute Cairn terrier. She will find out whether the stuff behind the show you put on in your query is for real. And if you’ve done the work, the right work, trust you will be hearing from someone real soon.
Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.
If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.
Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM
Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC