Rejection, noun – The ignoble act of passing over a clearly remarkable novel; pure, poignant pain; the cause of many writers’ soulful wailings.
Back before Craigslist was all scams, all the time, I found an ad for a literary agency on there. They were looking for an intern, the ad claimed. Someone who could help them with their slushpile and other assorted tasks. I applied right away, certain that I wouldn’t get it. I mean, what did I know about publishing? I’m not even sure I knew what a query letter was. But as luck would otherwise have it, I got the internship.
It only lasted a few months – the agent I was helping ended up leaving – but it was eye-opening. I read slush for a few hours each day during the lulls at my dayjob and it was the best education in publishing I could’ve hoped for. I learned about queries and about what agents did and about editors and about publishing deals.
Most importantly, I learned how subjective the whole industry is.
I read dozens of queries every day for several months and so often I found myself thinking this is fine, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, it’s just not for me. Less often, I’d read a query where I’d think I’d enjoy reading this, but…
And that but was key. Because I knew the agent only had so much time and energy, and she couldn’t take on every novel that she’d simply enjoy reading. She had to fall in love with it. That didn’t mean the novels that came our way didn’t have potential, or weren’t marketable, or weren’t some shade of “good.” They just weren’t for us.
It wasn’t rejection; we were simply passing.
That’s why, when I started querying six months later and the first “not for me” came in, I didn’t think of it as a rejection. I mean yes, that first pass – and subsequent passes – still hurt, but in a pulling-off-the-bandaid sort of way. I knew enough to expect and plan for it.
Yet thirty-odd bandaid pulls later, your skin gets a little raw. With that first foray into querying, I got zero requests for pages and zero responses beyond “not for me.”
Okay yeah, even knowing that none of it was meant personally, that still hurt. And I realized that particular project wasn’t ready to query yet. So I shelved it and worked on something else and a year later, I tried again.
No, no, no, no, not for me, no –
Even with my experience on the other side of the query, it was hard to keep positive when all I heard was “no.” It was hard not to start feeling each blow personally. Hard not to make the mistake of transforming “what’s wrong with this novel” into “what’s wrong with me?”
Thankfully this time, I heard more than just “no.” I received a manuscript request. Reader, the disbelief and joy I felt… well. It was a clear step forward and a sign – however small – that I was getting better at this. I even dared to hope, just a little.
Unfortunately, the manuscript request turned into another pass. Except this pass came with a hidden gem – the agent had taken the time to tell me what she thought my story lacked and why she was passing. I realized she was 100% correct. I stopped querying and let the rest of the passes roll in, content, if uncomfortable, in the knowledge that I still had some work to do.
I returned to the first project and reworked it with some critique from betas, but it still felt stale. I’d started both these projects while in college and by this point, I’d been (re)writing them off and on for some six or seven years. I was tired of them, and not very excited – so how could I expect an agent to be excited?
If even I wasn’t in love anymore, no wonder they kept passing.
I started something new. A project that wasn’t just a rewrite or rework of something old. One that was just for me and just for fun and if it didn’t go anywhere, then, well, at least I’d had a blast writing it.
By the time I queried that new project – now called The Impossible Contract (aka book 2) – I knew what I was getting into. Lots of passes. Lots of no answer means no. I hoped for another manuscript request, maybe two, to prove that I was making progress, to give me the energy I needed to work on my next project.
I did get a manuscript request – several. As well as many passes. But this time, the passes were more personal. They often gave a reason. To be fair, that reason was “holy cow this manuscript is too long.” But: reasons!
One pass, though, yanked me right back to those days I’d spent reading and agonizing over the slushpile myself. In only a few words, the agent reminded me why this was so hard and could take so long: she said that while she’d enjoyed the pages, she was passing because I deserved “an unequivocally enthusiastic agent.”
And she was right. I was lucky to find one in the following weeks, but if I hadn’t, I would have deserved to keep trying, to revise or rework or write again. Because querying is hard, but so is being on submission, and so is publishing in general, and there’s more than enough to worry about – knowing that your agent is 100% on board and with you shouldn’t be one of them.
So keep going and remember that each pass is, in fact, a kindness – an agent who knows they wouldn’t be able to do right by your project. Hold out for unequivocal enthusiasm.
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