Waiting for that yes from an agent is like waiting for that second line in a pregnancy test when you want to start a family. (Men, stick with me here—it’s not all about peeing on a stick.) You want it so badly that every time you receive a no your spirit drops. At first you remind yourself that these things take time. Sure, some people boast success after the first try—and a few (a curse be upon them) get a yes even when they aren’t actively trying for one. But for most people (so the experts say) it will take a while. And anyway, you’re having fun working on that baby—I mean, book—right?
But then months go by, maybe years, and nothing. What am I doing wrong? you think. You may blame yourself, you may blame others, you may come to believe it was just not meant to be. But while you can’t necessarily learn much in the way of technique from a negative pregnancy test, you can learn a lot from rejections you receive when querying.
So You Want to Publish Your Novel…
Between April 2012 and November 2013, I sent out 127 queries for the same novel (we’ll call this book Nice Try for the purposes of this article). It wasn’t always the same draft. I worked and worked on Nice Try every time I got a note from an agent that I could file in my Helpful Rejections folder.
Of all the queries I sent out, 45% of them got no response at all and 46% of them got a “No thanks.” That leaves 9% that got an initial favorable response and a request for pages. Of those positive responses, after sending a partial or full manuscript, I got silence from one agent. From the others, I got a variety of pleasant rejections, such as:
- “You write well but I’m not confident I could be successful marketing this for you.”
- “I found much to admire there. Ultimately, however, the project is not right for me.”
- “It sounds strong but I don’t have the correct editorial contacts.”
- “You are clearly a talented writer. Unfortunately, however, I am being extremely careful about taking on new projects, particularly first novels which are very difficult to place in the current marketplace.”
Okay, that’s fine. But not so helpful when it comes to making the story better. Never fear! I also got the following comments:
- “The main character is not sympathetic enough.”
- “While the novel is well written, I found the prose and the storytelling too matter-of-fact without bringing to life the voices of the characters or creating enough intrigue for the reader.”
- “While your pages are interesting and well-written, I don’t think it gets going quite as fast as it needs to.”
- “I’m afraid I wasn’t as engaged as I had hoped to be. I felt the characters weren’t sketched as completely as I would have liked, and as a result I didn’t feel the necessary interest in or sympathy for them.”
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Two agents asked to see a revision. One agency just wasn’t strong in the market I was going for, though the individual agent liked my writing. I got this response from the other:
- “I’ve tried a number of times to get back into Nice Try, but I’m afraid I still can’t connect with the protagonist. As relatablity is the most important thing to me, I’m going to pass on this, regrettably. I’d be delighted to read other projects from you in the future.”
Seeing the pattern? I did.
- Readers had trouble connecting with the protagonist, who was not sympathetic or relatable enough.
- The voice was not connecting with readers.
- The pacing was poor (or at the very least, the story started too early).
I tried to improve each of these aspects—I even changed the entire novel over from third person to first person POV in an attempt to get my protagonist to open up a bit. But at some point I felt I had spent enough time on a story that obviously wasn’t working. With distance, I began to understand the depth of its flaws. I could either do a major rewrite—the literary equivalent of bailing water on the Titanic—or move on and apply the lessons I learned from querying Nice Try to a new book. I opted for the latter.
You’re Getting Warmer
For my next novel, which we’ll call Close but No Cigar, I queried fifty agents. I targeted fewer (and largely different) people than with Nice Try because I had a clearer idea of who was looking for the type of writing I wanted to do. Of those fifty agents, only 26% didn’t respond at all and 24% said “No thanks,” many with personal notes about how the idea intrigued them but it wasn’t quite right for them. So only 50% negative (compared to over 90% with Nice Try). From 42%, I got requests to see more—compared to just 9% with Nice Try. (The jury’s still out on three agents, who have yet to respond as of the writing of this article to recent queries).
In total, fourteen agents requested the full manuscript. That’s 28% of those queried. And of those, I got so much great feedback and advice that I can’t possibly share it all in this article. And when I got that feedback, some of it was in the form of long phone calls with a couple incredible agents I greatly admire. I did not settle for trying to “tweak” my manuscript when I knew that I needed to make some substantive changes. I believed enough in Close but No Cigar to make it work.
I still got a number of those “You’re a great writer but I’ll have to pass” emails. And that’s fine. The lesson I come away with is that every book is not for everyone. You need someone passionate about your writing to represent you, because they have to sell you and your book to an editor, and they have to be confident they can do it. And several of those emails asked me to send my next effort their way if I didn’t get an agent with this manuscript.
One thing I did not hear? That my protagonists were not sympathetic. While writing Close but No Cigar I always had in mind the most common criticism of Nice Try and I was consciously trying to improve. In fact, I got many compliments on my characters this time around, though I also got some good advice about showing the development of relationships more clearly.
Other takeaways from this round of querying?
- My opening pages didn’t always grab readers right off the bat.
- I am still not getting the emotion to the page in many cases.
- There were still choices my characters made that did not always ring true.
- Because I had a complex plot with three distinct stories in three different times, some readers didn’t feel they got to know the characters as well as they would have liked.
What can I take from this as I work on subsequent novels?
- My beginnings tend to be too quiet—liven them up, hint at what’s to come, and be sure I’m starting where the story truly begins.
- Find ways to evoke authentic emotion in readers (since I’m loathe to spell them out on the page—I hate being told exactly what a character feels about everything in her world).
- Do the necessary work showing the why of a choice or the inevitability of a choice.
- Maybe go deeper into one story (while maintaining the complexity readers liked) rather than shallowly touch three stories.
Accentuate the Positive
Not all learning comes from the negative reactions of others. If you focus too much on the criticism, you’ll miss the things you’re already doing well that you should continue to consciously cultivate. For me, these were things like:
- “I really like your story concept and the way you are weaving the past and present characters.”
- “I love how complex the plot is here and the idea of weaving together the different generations of characters and events.”
- “We’re very impressed with the story itself as well as your ability to tackle three intertwining plot threads.”
- “It manages to pull off a unique story (which is a rare and pleasant surprise).”
- “You’re a strong writer . . . in the event that you don’t find an agent with this project, I would love to look at future work from you.”
As writers, we desperately need encouraging words like these. I haven’t given up yet on Close but No Cigar. It’s close—so close—to striking the right chord. I’ve put it aside for now to settle, and I’ll likely pick it up again later this year or early next to tinker with. It could end up traditionally published someday. Or it could be a self-published project. Time will tell.
Surviving the NO! as You Wait for the YES!
You might think from reading this article that I received more than 175 rejections in three years with nothing but sunny positivity about what I could learn from this experience. Certainly not. I didn’t spiral into a cupcake-fueled depression, but I won’t pretend there weren’t times when I wondered if all of the crushing defeat was really worth it. I mean, no one is requiring us to put ourselves out there to be rejected.
In addition to the rejection I’ve experienced during the past three years in my fiction writing, I also applied for two other positions in my company—and I didn’t get either one. So my world has basically been a big, fat NO! lately. This is hard. In school, everything I tried was met with a big, fat YES! and things came easily. NO! is a new experience, and not one I enjoy.
I find that the easiest rejections to accept are the silences and the “No thanks” you get when an agent didn’t even have enough interest to ask for a sample. The hard ones are the ones where someone has actually taken the time to read your work and, for whatever reason, pegs you as “not good enough” or “not marketable.” The ultimate rejection I received from an agent with whom I was developing a real relationship and for whom I did a significant revision was very hard to take. In fact, after that one I was so down that my husband suggested I buy a plane ticket to go see a very old friend in Colorado I haven’t seen in years. The trip details were finalized by the next day.
So how do you cope with all that NO! and still retain the passion to create? You remind yourself that it’s not personal, it’s business. You give yourself permission to feel disappointed or even angry. You allow yourself time to cry or mope or break things or whatever. You go back to those rejections and, if possible, tease out some lesson you can learn. Then you do the work you need to do to make next time better.
What you don’t want to do is shut down, stop sharing, or stop writing. When properly handled, rejection is a good teacher. It can teach you how to write a better query letter, how to target agents who are more likely to love your work, and how to identify the weak points in your writing that need more attention the next time around.
It can also teach you about yourself. Hubris led me to think that I could succeed on my first try. Rejection humbled me. Hope and a belief in my next story led me to try again. Rejection showed me that I’m getting closer, but I’m not quite ready yet. And when my third attempt, a story we’ll call This Could Be It!, is sent out to the select group of agents who have enjoyed my work and invited me to submit something else to them, I will hold my breath, cross my fingers, and pray. Yes, it may be rejected. But maybe, just maybe, I will hear an enthusiastic YES!
Erin Bartels is a copywriter, a freelance editor, and the author of The Intentional Writer and This Elegant Ruin: and other stories. She’s spent the past three years getting rejected and learning the meaning of patience. You can find her at www.erinbartels.com.
***This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Write On, the Women’s Fiction Writers Association newsletter.