What Next?

Here’s a question I received a while back from Michele:

What is a writer to do when and agent really enjoys their work but passes? Obviously a form rejection tells you you’re way off the mark. If you are rejected because of an issue with the writing you can look at fixing it. But a rejection because the agent doesn’t connect with the story leaves a lack of direction. Do we leave our work as is and search for other agents? Do we assume the MS isn’t marketable and scrap it? Do we consider submitting other another Ms to that agent in the hope it will be a better fit? And, if we did submit to that agent again (and got accepted) would he/she pitch the stories the he/she already passed on? If the agent works for a house we really respect, do we query a different agent there with a future MS because they might be more passionate about our work?

Rejection isn’t just disappointing and hurtful, it’s frustrating, too. The writer is left with very little direction, as Michele so astutely points out. If the writer goes back to the agent with a question or a request for more detailed critique, the agent will usually decline to elaborate or not answer the email. We simply don’t have the time and energy to give personalized advice to everyone who wants it. So what’s next?

I’ll address Michele’s thoughts in order, starting with the first two. After an agent fails to connect with the manuscript, do you submit to other agents or do you scrap the MS and call it unmarketable?

When we submit a client’s manuscript to editors, we often get detailed feedback. If we made our client do a revision after every rejection, the client would feel jerked around, it would take forever, and there’d be no guarantee that the editor who offered some thoughts would go on to buy the project. It’s exactly the same here. I personally submit to smaller rounds of editors to see if we get some of the same feedback over and over. If we do, I can guide the client on a revision before submitting to other editors (or editors who wanted to see a revision). I suggest you do the same. Send to a group of agents and see if they all say the same thing. If they do, maybe think about revising. If they all hate it, try another group or, yes, it might be time to consider how saleable your work is. But do bounce it off several people before making revisions or the drastic decision to give up on that manuscript. There are so many tastes and opinions out there that letting one person’s rejection decide these questions isn’t the smartest thing to do.

As for querying that agent again (or another agent or editor at the same agency or house) with a different manuscript… I say you can try, but only after some time goes by and you really hone your craft. We really do get annoyed hearing from writers we’ve just rejected, if we rejected them because of basic writing issues. We’re going to think their new writing has the same issues, because so little time has passed since we saw those issues in a previous piece. Michele astutely wonders, also, if getting representation after a previous rejection means we’ll have to represent the previous project, too.

This is a sticky situation. I firmly believe that all writers are on a path toward improvement. So I never swear off a writer just because they’re not “there” in their craft, their ideas or their execution just yet. You never know. Everyone starts somewhere and then they go on to grow and learn and really impress people. That’s why I’m always going to at least look at a project from a writer who I’ve read and rejected before. If I do end up offering representation to them after time has passed and after they send along a different project, we’ll talk about their previous project. In most cases, writers who improve a lot tend to hate their previous work because they can see all the flaws in it. I can’t stand to look at most of the things I’ve ever written because I know so much better now. If the client wants to pursue it, we’ll look at it together and see if it’s viable. If it’s not, I am under no obligation to represent a client’s past work and drawer novels because I put my name and reputation on the line with everything I send out to editors, too.

If you still want to work with the same agency or house but want to try another editor or agent there, do make sure that you’ve done significant revision. And wait until you’ve heard from all the other agents and editors who you have submissions out with. One of them might have feedback for you. If you’re really set on working with a particular company and they’ve already rejected you once or twice, really do put everything you’ve got into that next submission, since you may not have that many more chances. And, as always, patience is your #1 asset at this point.

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  1. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    HI! Oh, I’m glad you posted this question.

    It’s tough, but one thing I’d heard, even from reading agent/editor blogs and following twitter posts, is that one agent could like it and another not. . . it’s a bit subjective.

    Mary, I like your viewpoint on all this and totally agree with, “And, as always, patience is your #1 asset at this point.”

    Write on!

    Happy Friday.

  2. write-brained’s avatar

    Mary, this is really good advice! I was getting similar kinds of comments back from agents (one of whom was you– I SO appreciated you taking the time to give me two personalized lines about why you didn’t find the opening pages engaging enough). After a few months of querying and more of these kinds of passes, I finally ditched it (SO hard to do)and began writing two new ideas I had. And I saw the growth in my writing immediately–even my critique group saw it.
    I do entertain the idea that I can go back to that other manuscript and “fix it” through more experienced eyes, but who knows. I’m too excited about what I’m doing now to look back :)

  3. Jackee’s avatar

    “I firmly believe that all writers are on a path toward improvement.” I love that you said that and I agree! I practice Tai chi chuan and to become a Master it takes years and years and hours and hours to reach that level, much less Grand Master. It is the same for writing, in my mind. Though we may get published, we have not mastered everything there is to master. So we should all keep improving, rolling with the rejections, and writing those one million bad words.

    Thanks for the post. I would only add (clarify, really) that if an agent rejects you, but invites you to submit something else you should send it right away. If it’s polished.

  4. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Great stuff to know. Thank you.

    Lynn I love that…write on!

  5. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Thanks for doing us another solid w/ this post.

    I know so many writers who were not published until their second, third, or thirteenth(!) manuscript. I’ve got to train like Rocky Balboa to become a better writer.

    Forget Eye of the Tiger, I’m singing Eye of the Agent!

  6. Michele Tennant’s avatar

    Thank you so much for answering my questions. It is really helpful.

    I am a multi-tasker as I think most writers are. Sometimes it’s tough to juggle agent submissions, editor submissions, stories in the process of rewrites and new projects. I tend to plan ahead what happens if this is accepted/rejected. A “thinks but no thanks” was always pretty clear. I took that to mean; revise, see if you can make it better and send it somewhere else. The whole “good but I’ll pass” sort of threw me for a loop. Your answers basically confirmed that I was on the right track already. Still, I feel much better knowing I chose the correct path instead of wandering down it several miles before realizing I took a wrong turn.

    Thanks.

  7. katie’s avatar

    I think this post really brings us back to the ‘revision’ aspect of it all. It’s hard to know why an agent is really not taking on your manuscript. Like the manuscipts you send to editors, I think writers should only make revisions based on an agent’s comments if really speaks to them on some level, or if they’ve gotten the same comments over and over again.
    Comments from agents are so cryptic, however, that it’s near impossible to gain anything from them most of the time.
    I believe though, from experience, that if something is wrong with your manuscript, you’ll figure it out eventually and most of the time it’s something you’re aware of from the start but are either too impatient, (not having enough recule from the manuscript to be able to intellectually or emotionally make the cuts or the revisions necessary) or hopeing the agent won’t notice. lol. Like you say, patience is an important asset here.

  8. A. Grey’s avatar

    Mary thanks for taking the time to answer Michele’s questions! It’s wonderful to get a glimpse into an agent’s mind. Especially when the last few rejections I’ve gotten have been both personalized and supportive but the agents have said they just didn’t connect as strongly as they felt they should.

    I’m beginning to think that I’m getting passed simply because my YA has a post-apocalyptic setting. Although one agent actually used the term ‘great mix of smart and commercial’ I’m also hearing (not through my rejections but blogs) that agents are passing on post-apocalyptic because they feel it’s ‘been done’. I can’t say that I agree, considering how the current glut of vampire/werewolf books far outstrips post-apocalyptic setting books, but at least (if, indeed, that’s what the problem is) I can set the ms aside knowing that I’m capable of writing something marketable. And some day, maybe I can go back to it.

  9. Melissa’s avatar

    Great advice, Mary. You’ve really made me think with that point that if my work isn’t going over well, the other stories I’ve already written probably won’t go over, either.

    An incidental question I’ve been thinking about, which is totally unrelated to this post: What, in your opinion, are the fundamental differences between the typical published book and the published book that gains honors…starred reviews, great reader responses, prizes, etc.? If published books are the best of the best, honored books are the best of the best of the best. Do you see comparable features that make this ultra-elite group stand out? Or are they too varied to characterize at all?

  10. Thermocline’s avatar

    I’m tired of patience being my #1 asset at this point. I want Freakin’ Awesome to be my #1 asset.

  11. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Thermocline, I’m with you. I’ve grown impatient with being patient! *Cowers as she sees Mary’s virtual ‘agent whip’ uncoil.* I will be patient, I will be patient, I will be patient. (Or just go insane.)

  12. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Mary, you’ve raised some interesting points here. Thanks for the post.
    I’d also love to know your opinion re Melissa’s side question, it’s intrigued me too ….. ‘What, in your opinion, are the fundamental differences between the typical published book and the published book that gains honors…starred reviews, great reader responses, prizes, etc.?’

  13. Terri Forehand’s avatar

    Thanks for the information. I know honing your skills and patience are important so keep working at it I will. I appreciate all the tips and insight you give here and will post about this site on my blog soon at http://terri.forehand.blogspot.com

  14. Mary’s avatar

    Sheryl — Oh god. Uh… selling one’s soul to the devil and some kind of elf magic? But seriously, this is a tough question and I’ll have to think on it. Thanks for putting me firmly between rock and hard place. :P

  15. Krista G.’s avatar

    Good advice, Mary, as always.

    And you know, I think our writer’s instinct is a good barometer, too. Deep down, we KNOW when something’s not working with the manuscript, whether we admit it or not. Any agent feedback we might get will probably only confirm what we’ve already been feeling.

    That said, personal taste does have a lot to do with it. Everybody brings a different perspective to a reading. That’s why querying widely – but smartly – is always a good idea.

  16. Rachel Heston Davis’s avatar

    Thanks for the post! It is a tough road to be on when you get a bunch of form rejections–you’re not sure what’s wrong, and if all you have sent is a query letter, then you don’t know if it’s your story that’s the problem or the way you’ve done the letter.

    As I’m currently waiting to hear back on my ms from an agent who sounds very interested, this was a timely post. Thanks, thanks, and thanks!

    Rachel Heston Davis
    Up and Writing

  17. Tamara Schmidt’s avatar

    Thanks for your guidance as we navigate through rough and uncharted waters!
    Your answers were extremely helpful in decoding the various aspects of rejection.

  18. Jeanette@Bliss’s avatar

    I have to thank you for sharing your posts on revisions. I just read them and had to laugh out loud about the cookie-dough-scarfing despair because that is exactly where I am right now. Proclaiming that I stink and that I should just give up writing forever (as if that were even an option). Thank you for your words. Everything you said was dead on and it makes me feel better to know that I’m “normal”.
    I also appreciated your post on changing a manuscript completely during revisions. That’s what my instincts are telling me to do and it is so helpful to know that my feelings are right and that I’m not making a mistake by basically starting over. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now I can lay off of the cookie dough and get back to work.

  19. Marice Kraal’s avatar

    Thanks for this post, Mary. As always you give such good, solid advice. I particularly appreciated the advice about approaching a different agent at an agency that I’ve already approached. I learnt a lot about the flaws in my manuscript through the (sob) rejection process and have drastically changed it, but I was terribly worried I had forever blown my chances with those agencies. It sounds like I just have to be a bit patient and then try again later. By then, I might have a new project finished anyway. Your blog always gives encouragement to persist and above all, to improve. Thanks as always!

  20. katie’s avatar

    I think the best advice I ever got from a rejection was an indirect “Start the story where the story starts”- this helped me immensely. Mary’s blog says it here too in her post about book beginnings.

    Thermocline and Franziska- I’m with you girls. I never had any patience to begin with. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. BUT, I think querying right away did give me that much needed dose of reality and ever since I’ve been taking it a lot more slowly- making cuts and revisions, writer’s critiquing board, gunineau pig readers, and then testing the waters again to see what happens. Good luck to you both!

  21. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Hahaha, sorry about that, Mary! Yes, it will be a difficult thing to dissect because sometimes there are also differences between books that win awards, and books that are absolutely great reads.

    Are the award-winning books usually about something ‘deep and meaningful’? And well-written too, of course.

    I suppose what I’m saying is – can a book that is a ‘great read’ but not ‘deep and meaninful’ win awards? From what I’ve seen the later is necessary as well.

  22. Rob Kent’s avatar

    I wish I had remembered this post a few weeks ago:)

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