Something we see a lot of in the writing community is about rejections. I don’t think I can go a day without scrolling through my Twitter feed and not see at least one person saying they got rejected on a query or on a partial or on a full or for a short piece they wrote.
You write this beautiful thing, you put your heart and soul into it, you send it to your mom or your best friend, they love it, your beta readers love it and point out a few things to change, you change them, and you polish it up and get your query package ready to send, you make your list of agents to send to, and you press send. It’s a big moment. The first time you send a query out is nerve racking—there’s no two ways about it. You’re sending a piece of your innermost self out into the world for a stranger to read and hopefully love as much as you do… and then, you stare at your inbox for hours, days, weeks. And it never happens while you’re watching, nay, nay. As my dad would quote from his favourite Charlie Brown Christmas tree ornament, “A watched stocking never fills.” No, it happens when you’re not looking. Your rejection sneaks in there when you least expect it. For me, it was the first thing I saw when I woke up the next morning. I was literally peeling my eyes open, and I checked my phone for an email. Luckily it was a quick band-aid rip response. Less than 24 hours later and I’d received a form response.
When I look back now, I cringe at how awful my query letter was. And even my manuscript—it’s been revised many times since then. But at that moment, I was devastated. Oh, how little I knew. A young grasshopper, I was. Still so much to learn.
But let’s look at the many reasons for rejections. It could be the query letter. Maybe it didn’t grab the agent’s attention. It could be that there wasn’t a strong enough hook. It could be the concept is old and overdone. The comps might not be very well known. The comps might be too well known. The agent might not really be a good fit—maybe they don’t represent quite the genre that you’re writing, or maybe they’ve already got enough of that genre on their client list.
In 99.9% of cases, it’s not that you made a spelling error or missed a double word.
But of all of the things I just mentioned, they all have one thing in common: whether it’s the query or the pages, it just wasn’t ready yet.
And in a world where form rejections are the norm, how do we determine what it is we’re doing wrong?
This is one reason why it’s a good idea to send in small batches, and don’t query your top, TOP agents first. You want to test out the waters, see how your query and pages are doing, and you don’t want that to be with your dream agent. If you start getting requests for pages, then you know your query is doing great. If you get rejected on the pages, you know it’s your pages that need work. If all you’re getting is rejections on just the query, you know that’s what needs work.
As I’ve said in other posts, something you absolutely need to do is get other eyes on your query and first pages. Yes, on your full manuscript, too, but definitely don’t query agents until you’ve gotten some great feedback from critique partners and writing friends. Listen to The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast—every Thursday, a new episode is dropped, and you get to listen to real queries and first pages get critiqued by real literary agents. This is a fabulous way for you to learn what agents typically look for in queries and first pages. If you’re feeling brave, you can send in your query letter and first five pages for critique on the podcast. It’s a great opportunity for you to learn, and for others to learn, too. Bianca, Carly, and Cece do a fabulous job giving feedback.
But you need to be prepared for rejections, even after you’ve perfected the query letter and pages. A lot of success in the publishing industry is about luck and good timing. And something to always keep in mind is that it’s not personal. They aren’t rejecting you; they’re rejecting your story—and that doesn’t mean your story isn’t good. It just means it’s not the right story for them.
Getting your first rejection is a rite of passage. (Bianca said exactly the same thing in a big Zoom session post-retreat check-in after I’d written this post/recorded this episode but before it was released! Lol) Rejections are going to happen. I know I don’t know every writer out there, but I can’t think of a single one who never got a rejection. Breaking into the publishing world is HARD. You’ll get multiple rejections before you start seeing some positive action on your manuscript. But if you can prepare your mind for it ahead of time, it seems to be a little easier to take. You know it’s going to suck, you know it’s going to hurt, you know it’s going to get you down—especially when the rejection comes from a dream agent. Allow yourself to feel those feelings, but don’t let it keep you down. Keep going. Keep trying. Because nobody ever made their dreams come true by giving up, right?
In most cases, people learn a lot between writing their first novel and writing subsequent novels. Their writing has changed, they make improvements. This is why it can take three, four, sometimes five novels written before they finally sign with an agent and start getting book deals.
And you know what? NONE of those novels were mistakes. None of them were a waste of time. They are all opportunities to learn and grow and hone the craft of writing. It gives you experience not just in writing, but in putting yourself out there, in connecting with other writers, in getting comfortable with it all.
When you keep getting rejections, have someone else look at your query, your first few pages, your first few chapters, your entire manuscript. Get some critiques and look for patterns in the feedback, and then focus on those areas.
It might get to the point where you don’t want to do it anymore. And when that happens, it’s ok to let it sit for a while. Not every book is written all at once. If it’s stressing you out, take some time and walk away from it for a while. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up on it. Don’t ever put a manuscript in the trash bin when you’re stressed or angry at the publishing world. That’s an emotional response. But if, when you go back to it and try again, and you’re just not feeling it, and you feel ok with that, then you know that might be the time to shelf it.
But don’t let that be the end of your writing. There are a million other ideas that are floating around in your head, and you can start something new. Apply all that knowledge you’ve learned and start a new novel. Keep learning as you go. Try different things, experiment, share it with others. Get opinions and feedback and critiques.
Rejections are a part of the package. It’s part of the game, it’s part of the process. It comes with the territory. Know that, embrace that, and that way when you go through it, it won’t be quite so hard on you mentally and emotionally.
It doesn’t mean your writing isn’t any good. It means there is room for improvement, or that you haven’t found the agent for you. You love your story, and you want someone who’s going to love it and cherish it equally as much. Someone who’s going to champion it. So each and every one of those rejections is another step toward finding that person.
You can do what Stephen King did and take your rejections and put them up on a nail in the wall, you can print them out and put them on a bulletin board, you can save them in your inbox, you can do whatever you want with them. But every single one you get is a part of your experience and growth as a writer.
Perseverance is key. Those of us who persevere are the ones that will look back on them one day and smile and thank them for getting you to where you are.
Today’s guest is author Chantal Corcoran. Chantal is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, a Pushcart Prize nominee and a MAGGIE award winner. Her nonfiction has been published in The Chronicle Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, NPR’s Desert Companion, The Rumpus, The Common and elsewhere. Her short stories have appeared in Grain, Litro Magazine, The Dalhousie Review and in other fine journals. She’s about three pieces shy of a full collection and has newly completed her first novel, a psychological thriller, for which she currently seeks representation. She is a Canadian living in Puerto Rico.
You can listen to today’s episode here.