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Taking Rejection and Learning from Agents

Querying is incredibly daunting, and I hope I never have to do it again. It's the worst. But the Year of Querying made my manuscript SO MUCH BETTER. What's amazing about the process is that there are people out there who you can send your manuscript to, and yes--some will just write "no thanks" back, but many of them will tell you what they liked or didn't like (equally important information). And that's amazing.

When you're in the query trenches, there are many ups and downs, but mostly--unless you're very lucky or very connected--there are downs. The Querytracker statistics are grim. Average query results are 5%. That means that for 100 queries the average bear will get five full requests. This wasn't the case for me, and I know several authors who feel the stats are more like 30%-if you send out ten queries, three will come back positively--or asking for more material. But there it is. We're up against a lot of rejection. It's just part of being a writer.

Rejections on queries didn't bother me too much--I thought of queries like lukewarm-sales-calls. The agent is looking for manuscripts, and maybe they're interested in yours specifically, and maybe they're not. But once you've gotten a full request and a rejection, that smarts.

So, how can we take those full rejections and turn them into something useful?

First--the worst type of full MS rejection letter, the one that say "I just didn't connect to the... (whatever)" I worried about those for DAYS. What about the (whatever) didn't they connect to? How? What could I do to fix it? The answer was and is: nothing. You can do nothing. Because they haven't articulated what was missing for them, just that something was. I had one agent call it "a spark" missing for her, and that actually made more sense to me. Sometimes, these ones came with compliments. Take them, take them. Agents really don't spend time writing compliments unless they mean them. (I'm sure there's an exception to this, but generally, it's true.) So, brush these ones off! If you can take the compliments and know what NOT to cut, all the better.

Second--the specific issues rejection letter, or the one that says "too much time was spent on the parents for a middle grade..." or "the dialogue lacked feeling..." or "the voice didn't seem right for YA." These are great, because they're specific. But don't rush to implement a bunch of changes right away. These are the comments that you sit with. What I did was cut and pasted the criticisms into a Word document and didn't look at them for a week (at least.) Then, when I could stomach it, I read them carefully. Often, an agent would give specific positive feedback along with negative, and I'd first ask myself if I agreed with what he or she said was strong about the manuscript. This is a terrific indicator of whether you should seriously look at their negative feedback. If you agree with the positive, give the negative a closer look. And then, revise if you feel like you see a path to fixing the issue.

Third and finally--the nebulous I-liked-it-so-much-BUT letter. This might be the actual worst, because you feel so close AND YET. This letter might describe a ton of things that the agent absolutely loved about your novel, but in the end "it just takes a lot to take on a new client," or "contemporary isn't selling well right now," or "no one hearts Vampires anymore." (Now seems like a good time to mention that I'm paraphrasing, and none of these are direct quotes from any particular agent... ) This isn't an R&R (Revise and Re-submit). This is a pass. But--two pathways could come from it. First, if they didn't give much negative feedback or any at all except that they're passing, you can write back "thank you" then ask if they'd like to see your next book when it's polished. They will likely want to see more of your work, so you can move them into the "maybe next time" category, which cools the burn a bit. Or second, if they gave you some specific negative feedback in addition to a TON of positive feedback, you might follow up (in a week or so) with an e-mail that says something like:

"Thank you for all your wonderful ideas for improving TITLE. I plan to spend the next three months revising for ____, _____, and _____. If, after revisions, TITLE is significantly revised would you be interested in taking a second look at it?"

This isn't much risk, because the agent is already a pass. Despite rumors, it's unlikely you'll annoy an agent into not taking you on as a client by sending this type of letter (there are other ways to get blocked for sure, but likely not this). And it might work--connecting with an agent over time can and has led to offers of rep.

But whatever type of rejections you've gotten--remember that as agents often say--they are only one voice and others may feel differently. When I read this awful phrase, it always hurt. But it helped me to remember that I didn't want to read EVERY book in the bookstore, nor even every book in the YA or teen section. We all have different tastes, and connecting with every agent is just as unlikely as connecting with every book in your genre.

And when all else fails, go read all the rejection stories over on Litrejections. Then keep writing.


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