Getting rejections may be the hardest part of a writer’s job, but understanding what they tell you could save your career. By studying the pattern of rejections you receive, you may identify problems – the first step toward improving.
Many writers send out submissions to 5-10 agents or editors at a time. Sending small batches means you don’t waste years sending out submissions one at a time, but you also don’t wipe out your entire list of possible targets at once. Save some targets for a second, third, or fourth round of submissions, so you can fix any problems you identify from your earlier rejection letters.
Since editors and agents rarely have the time to explain why they don’t want your manuscript, many of the rejections will be form letters. If an editor or agent’s policy is to only respond if interested, then no response also counts as a form rejection.
After your first 5 to 10 rejections, see what they can tell you by reading between the lines.
If you send a query letter and get only form rejections, you may have a problem with your concept or the way you’re presenting it.
Maybe your idea doesn’t appeal because the market niche is too small. Make sure you’re targeting appropriate publishers, maybe those with a specific genre or regional focus. Or try to broaden your audience appeal, such as adding a mystery or romance element to the less popular historical fiction genre.
Maybe the idea feels too familiar. If you’re following a trend like dystopian fiction or covering a common topic like the first day of school, you’ll need a really fresh take on the subject to stand out from other imitators.
If your manuscript isn’t currently marketable, you may need to make major revisions. If you can’t fix your idea, the best thing you can do is start a new project.
On the other hand, if you’ve done extensive market research and you’re confident that your idea is marketable, maybe you’re not expressing it well. Are you starting your query by clearly sharing a catchy “hook”? Are you focused on the main plot and character arc, or are you getting bogged down in unnecessary details about secondary characters and subplots? If your idea is trendy, does your query show what makes your interpretation different?
One final possibility is that you didn’t target appropriate editors or agents. If you suspect that’s the case, do more research.
Query letters are challenging, but many resources offer help. You can also ask friends who have not read the manuscript to read the query and tell you what they think the story is about. See if they get a good feel for what you’re trying to convey.
Good Idea, Poor Execution
If you have a strong idea and a well-written query letter, you may get a request for a partial manuscript. That’s a great sign that your topic is marketable. But if an agent or editor reads a few chapters and then passes, you may have a problem with your writing. That means more work on the writing craft. Is your opening too slow, with lots of back story and info dumps? Are you struggling with point of view, showing rather than telling, or pacing? Are you sure the writing is as good as you think it is?
Many books and websites offer writing craft lessons. A good critique group can also help, but less experienced writers may have trouble identifying problems, and even published writers are not always good teachers. Consider getting professional feedback, perhaps by taking classes, signing up for conference critiques, or hiring a freelance editor. (See my critique rates and recommendations here.)
If the agent or editor you queried likes your sample chapters enough to request the whole manuscript, that suggests your “voice” is working for them. If they like your idea and writing style but don’t make an offer after seeing the entire manuscript, most likely you either have plot problems or the manuscript isn’t quite strong enough to sell well in a competitive market. At that point, you’re more likely to get specific feedback if they decide to pass on the manuscript.
Rejections are always painful, but think of them as chance to learn. You’ll lessen the sting, and maybe help yourself reach acceptance next time.
Help with Query Letters
Author and former agent Nathan Bransford has many excellent posts on query letters.
AgentQuery.com has advice on writing query letters, with examples of hooks.
QueryTracker.net allows you to organize and track your query letters, and also to see reports of agent responses, for comparison.
Query Shark shares hundreds of real queries critiqued by an agent.
Slush Pile Tales also critiques real queries.
Books on Querying:
The Writer’s Digest Guide To Query Letters, by Wendy Burt-Thomas (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009)
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Book Proposals & Query Letters by Marilyn Allen and Coleen O’Shea (ALPHA, 2011)
The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock: The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Selling More Work Faster, by Diana Burrell and Linda Formichelli (Marion Street Press, LLC, 2006)
Do you have favorite resources for writing query letters? Have you ever revised a query and got more favorable responses? Do you find query writing even harder than writing the manuscript?
Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine.