Submitting to Literary Agents Who Have Already Rejected Your Work

Today I’d like to talk about submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work. There are only so many literary agents to go around, so I understand resubmitting a query letter to the same agents with multiple projects, or multiple revisions of the same project. Longtime blog friend Mary puts it like this:

I’m starting my second round of submitting my novel to agents. There are some agents I submitted it to between three and four years ago. I’ve substantially revised the novel in that time. Should I submit again to agents who had no interest back then? Two years ago I submitted a second novel to them with no luck either. Will they think “GAA! Her again!”?

submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work, resubmitting a query, slush pile, should I send to an agent who has rejected me, do i send queries to the same agents
Hey, so, I know this novel might sound familiar. But it’s changed, I swear!

Barking Up The Wrong Literary Agent Tree

I’ve discussed shades of this question before. For example, do you want to send a revision of a novel to an agent currently considering that same manuscript? But I realized I’ve never tackled this question before. And it’s a tough one, I’m afraid.

Unfortunately, even though you’ve corresponded with these agents before and they’ve looked at things of yours, it doesn’t seem like they’re hot leads for you. If you haven’t gotten a project through to a particular agent with either a personalized and encouraging rejection, or a revision request… And if this particular pattern has played out with two different manuscripts…

I’m afraid resubmitting a query will not help you connect with that particular agent because it may not be a fit. I can’t say this with 100% certainty for each agent on your submission list, of course. I’m not them. But I’d say that your chances are on the slimmer side.

Remind Them of Your History When Submitting To Literary Agents Who Have Already Rejected Your Work

Especially if you’re considering resubmitting a query with a new version of a manuscript they’ve already seen. You can absolutely try to submit to them. There’s nothing preventing you, unless you got a sense about any of the agents that they simply didn’t get, or didn’t want to get, your work. (It’s definitely not worth barking up their tree if that’s the case.) But do you want to submit to them again? I would be wary of this approach, honestly. You’ve identified the potential issue with it in your question.

Agents do remember people who’ve submitted to them, even a few years on. Most use email inboxes that make your previous submissions easy to find. And if you’re submitting to them and you have a history of previous submissions, you do want to mention that they’ve previously seen your work in your query. So they’ll have everything at their fingertips to remind themselves of your previous correspondence.

Now the agent receives another submission from you. And, in this case, it’s a resubmission of a project they’ve passed on. They will likely consider it. Will it be real interest, though, or politeness? That’s tough to say. Your fear isn’t completely unfounded. The agent might, realistically, wonder why you keep submitting to them if they haven’t given you any positive signals in the past. Sometimes an agent will have dozens of submissions from the same writer, even though none have hit their mark. Agents definitely remember these names.

Are you at that level of notoriety with one project, a second project, and a revision? No, but you’re getting up there. You know the old adage. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. In your case, this might not be insanity, of course. You may have turned around a phenomenal revision. And I hope you have! Focus your efforts on people who have either shown you encouragement, though, or new faces.

Know When to Keep Submitting a Project, and When to Move On

Long story short, in publishing, as in dating, it might be tempting to chase someone who doesn’t encourage your advances, but that may not be your strongest shot at success. I would advise you to freshen up your list of potential agents and submit to some new names. Let other agents see your revision for the first time! If nothing comes of that process, then you’re facing the difficult decision of whether you want to revise again, or chalk this manuscript up as a learning experience. Submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work can be tricky and risky. It may be worth a shot, though.

Do I love giving this advice? Absolutely not. But I respect you too much to sugarcoat a reply. I wish you the best of luck!

Are you getting nowhere with your manuscript? Wondering if you should keep revising or focus on a new project? Give yourself the strongest shot at success by working with me as your book editor. I can help you with questions of career strategy as well.

Submitting Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents

Recently, an editorial client of mine wrote in with the following awesome question about submitting multiple queries to multiple agents:

Is it ok to query two books at the same time to different agents? A novel and a picture book? An agent I want to work with is accepting queries for both picture books and novels. Is it ok to query the same agent with two different books? But I’d also like to send both projects to other agents.

This is a two-parter, so buckle your seat belts!

multiple queries to multiple agents, submitting multiple queries, sending more than one query at a time, querying multiple agents, literary agent submission
Thinking of lighting up New York City with your literary agent submission frenzy? Think very hard before querying multiple projects to the same agent, or multiple projects to multiple agents…

The two questions here are:

  1. Should I send two projects to the same agent?
  2. Should I query multiple projects at a time?

If you’re like my client, you have a lot of ideas in a lot of stages of development. You have a picture book here, a middle grade there, a YA up your sleeve, and maybe a few non-fiction pieces, just for the hell of it. You want them all to become real, live books yesterday. So how to do you proceed? Multiple queries to the same agent? Multiple queries to multiple agents? Or none of the above?

Submitting Multiple Queries to the Same Agent at Once

Should I send two projects to the same agent? No. Let them consider one project and respond before you send them something else. That’s just good etiquette. And based on their response, you might realize, “Hey, I have a better idea now of what they’re looking for,” or “Maybe they’re not the one for me.” If you’ve already sent another literary agent submission, you won’t be able to tailor that second letter to increase your chances.

Also, you might run the risk of scaring them off. If they haven’t yet gotten a chance to read Project 1, and Project 2 just hit their inbox, is Project 3 next? How many are there? Is this what you’ll be like to work with? Too much! Too soon! Aaah! That’s a melodramatic take on querying multiple projects, but you really will run the risk of the agent being put-off because it looks like you’re just fire-hosing all of New York City with a bunch of projects. They’d rather see a writer who is passionate and focused on one project at a time.

Querying More Than One Project at a Time

Should I query multiple projects at a time? Absolutely not. Let’s say the best case scenario happens. Watch how quickly it turns into the worst case scenario. In this day and age, remember, most agents represent more than one category. Sure, sometimes agents only represent novels. In that case, some of them will be fine with you having a picture book agent on the side. But some won’t be okay with you having another literary agent submission floating around out there. Keep that in mind.

Let’s say Agent A wants your novel and Agent B wants your picture book. But A represents both categories, while B only does picture books. You’ll have to tell them about one another at some point. When you do, I guarantee Agent A is going to ask you, “Why the heck didn’t you send me the picture book?” You run the very real risk of turning B off. You’ll immediately look like you were sneaking around behind their backs. I hope you can see how submitting multiple queries to multiple agents could turn into a mess very, very quickly. (Check out my post on having more than one literary agent for more on this topic.)

Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents is Too Much

FOCUS on one project at a time. Submit it. Hear feedback. Then you have two options: Revise that first project and submit it again, or put it away for a while and focus on the next project. Use what you’ve learned to make the pitch for your next project even stronger, then submit it when it’s truly ready. The take-away: ONE PROJECT AT A TIME, PLZ.

Everyone wants to rush rush rush through this process, but I’m here to tell you that if you have a need for speed, publishing is not for you. If you sold a book today (not gotten an agent for a book, SOLD the book), the earliest it’d come out is 2019. So, as the song says, “Take your time, do it right.”

Not only do I do manuscript editing, but I am also a publishing strategy consultant. If you’d like to talk your literary agent submission plans over and plan your next move in a sane and productive way, please reach out.

Writing Conference and Manuscript Critique Expectations

I’ve spoken about how to get published and provided manuscript critique at many a writing conference. Teaching writing is a passion for me (hence the blog). Most of the writers who get manuscript critique (at conferences, in critique groups, through the webinars, as a result of contests, etc.) approach it with the right attitude. Conferences and critiques are a learning opportunity. You submit your work, you hear feedback on it, and, eventually, you either incorporate the feedback or cast it aside. Sometimes a critique will completely click and validate your own instincts. Sometimes you won’t like it at all.

writing conference, manuscript critique, literary agent, how to get published
Sitting down for manuscript critique at a writing conference can be daunting, but try to approach it with the right attitude.

Context for Manuscript Critique

Let’s start by saying that, yes, some critique is just bad. It’s either totally off the mark (“Did they even read my story?”) or it feels mean-spirited (there’s a personal attack or they say something along the lines of “you will never ever ever ever publish”). Keep in mind, though, that telling you that your writing still needs work is not personally mean. It’s most likely honest. All writers, even published ones, strive to improve their writing, so “needs work” is not a bad thing.

Just because someone doesn’t heap praise on you or call you “the next J.K. Rowling” in critique doesn’t mean it’s a bad manuscript critique. No professional critique would say such a thing, so if that’s what you’re expecting, you’re in for disappointment. Most critique may be hard to take but, if it’s honest and comes from an expert source, it will have at least one or two nuggets of truth or action items that you can implement in your writing. If you leave your emotions out of it, you’ll most likely find this to be the case.

Don’t Expect Writing Conference Miracles

Manuscript critique is a tool. It is given to you and you must use it how you see fit. Maybe not right away. Maybe you’ll put it aside for a bit and then use it to look at your manuscript afresh. But it is extremely valuable–it is another set of eyes on your work, which is a very rare thing for writers to receive. Let’s now go into what critique isn’t. Something goes on in critiques and at a writing conference that I call American Idol Syndrome. There seems to be a mentality in the creative arts right now (not helped by all the competition shows that have sprung up over the last decade) that all you need is your one shot at greatness and then you’re a star. Instead of doing the hard labor for years and years, instead of working your butt off, all you need is to be in the right place at the right time in front of the right gatekeeper.

Believe me, I love this dream. I remember being 12 or 13 and reading in Seventeen magazine that some model got discovered when a scout saw her at the mall, offered her a contract on the spot, whisked her away to a life of luxury in NYC, and then it rained unicorns and puppies on her forever and ever, etc. I won’t lie to you–I was much more self-conscious going to the mall after that. I always chose my outfit carefully and maybe even put on a little make-up, which, for me, is a huge effort.

This fantasy is very appealing to humans. Work is hard. That’s why they call it “work,” instead of, you know “beach party.” We would rather have success tap us on the shoulder while we’re browsing Hot Topic and offer us the key to our dreams. But this happens much more rarely than you’d think in real life (that’s why we know the exceptions…they’re news). Especially in publishing, which isn’t as TV-ready-glamorous as fashion design, being a TV chef, modeling, singing, etc.

Put In the Work and Reap the Rewards

I know that when writers sign up for a writing conference or manuscript critique, there’s this little part of them that thinks, “Maybe I will meet my dream agent and we’ll ride off into the sunset together!” Heck, I met one of my now-colleagues at a writer’s conference. Writers connect with agents, editors, and other writers at conferences all the time. But those meetings are a lot less about luck than they are about hard work.

The writers that do find their agents and editors at these things are the ones who have done years of work on their craft, who are coming to the conference savvy and informed, who have bought a critique that brings them to the right person’s attention, and who have done as much as possible so that they’re ready to be fallen in love with.

Louis Pasteur said: “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” The people who win Idol have, most likely, years and years of voice lessons and musical theatre and practice behind them. They look like they’re just randomly being “discovered” on TV, but their entire creative life has brought them to that moment. It’s the sweaty, repetitive part that the cameras don’t show you. This goes for any creative endeavor.

Keeping Writing Conference Emotions in Check

Now. There is a small set of writers who do not react well to constructive feedback. They are the ones bitterly disappointed that they were not “discovered” as a result of a writing conference meeting or manuscript critique. All they wanted to hear was, “This is a diamond in the rough and I will publish it right this minute!” Anything else, no matter how sound the feedback, is crushing. If you are pinning all your hopes and expectations on one conference or critique, and you feel like “this is it, or else…,” I would save yourself the trouble and stay away for now. It is very likely that your unrealistic expectations will be dashed. (If you’re wondering whether you should attend a writers conference in the first place, this post is for you.)

Publishing is a tough business, and writing is, by its very nature, emotional. Writers, especially those striving to publish, need thick skins and heaps of resilience. I’d encourage everyone to adjust their expectations of mega-stardom and insta-fame now rather than be disappointed in the future. That’s not to say I’m thinking small. I would love for all of my clients to be #1 bestsellers! But you can’t go in expecting that to happen, or the journey will be very angsty for you.

Hope for great things (every writing conference or manuscript critique is an opportunity to grow), but don’t require them. Screw your determination to its sticking place, and get into this game to learn and grow as a writer. That’s the good stuff right there. If you happen to take off, it will be that much more satisfying, and you will have a very strong craft foundation to bolster your success.

Until that happens, if you still want to play the one-in-a-million odds at instant stardom, line up to audition for the next season of Idol. I guarantee that you won’t be alone in pursuing this favorite of human fantasies.

To put rocket boosters on your progress and get one-on-one manuscript critique without waiting for a conference, hire me as your book editor!

Questions a Literary Agent Might Ask You When Offering Representation

Today we’re discussing questions a literary agent might ask you when they’re considering offering literary representation. Thank you to Susan who, in the comments for my last post about questions to ask a literary agent, wanted to know the opposite: What questions might an agent have for a potential client? There’s no way I can speak comprehensively for everyone in the industry on this one, but as a former literary agent, here’s what I was often curious about, and why.

questions a literary agent might ask, literary agent, literary representation, novel submission, getting a literary agent, interviewing a literary agent, literary agent phone call
A call with a literary agent is a great chance to interview them. But know that they’re also interviewing you, and trying to suss out if you’ll be a pleasure to work with, or a pain in the espresso.

Literary Agents Want to Know About You

A little more about yourself: All that crazy stuff you left out of your query bio? Give it to me here! Just kidding. I don’t want your entire life story on the literary agent phone call, but I do want to get to know you. So questions a literary agent might ask could address you as a persona and your sense of humor, sensibilities, and storytelling abilities off the cuff (no pressure!). I’d rather have one or two cool and unique facts about you that are memorable than the dry this-is-where-I-went-to-college spiel. In turn, I usually take a few minutes to say what makes me tick.

Questions a Literary Agent Might Ask About Future Projects

Future ideas: I want to get a sense for what else is in your pipeline, so I ask you to pitch me a few more ideas that you’re kicking around. Your pitches don’t have to be perfect and the books can be far from finished–or even started–but this is a biggie for me. If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to work with you for a long time.

Those projects are a-comin’ ’round the mountain, whether I like it or not, and it’s only going to mean friction down the line if I sign you now and then fight you on every subsequent manuscript. If that’s the feeling I get, we’re likely not a good fit for the long-term, and it’s better to find out now. Don’t feel too much pressure on this one, though, because sometimes all I’m really curious about is whether those ideas are workable. They don’t have to be perfect just yet.

Your Overall Writing Career Goals

Your submission goals and overall career goals: I’ll ask you a little about where you see your career going and how you see this submission being handled. This is where I’ll also talk a little bit about my submission plans for the book and see if the two sync up nicely. The subtle thing I’m trying to figure out here is about your expectations. If you start talking book tour and six-figure advance right off the bat, I know you are going to be a handful down the road.

Publishing is full of big and little frustrations and decisions about your work that are completely outside of your control. Sure, you want to be as proactive as possible about your book and your career, but that doesn’t mean expecting the world handed to you on a silver platter by publishers who are, frankly, not handing out much of anything to the majority of debut authors these days. So some questions a literary agent might ask: Are you savvy and humble? Are you realistic? Are you prepared to work hard to see your goals to completion? This is what I’m really asking here. (God, I can’t believe how much I’m showing my cards in this post…)

Literary Agents Are Gauging How You React to Editorial Feedback

Your reaction to feedback: If I’m offering representation, I will have editorial feedback for you. Now. A lot of agent colleagues have spent hours on the phone with a potential writer, giving all their notes, laying out a revision plan, only to have the writer go elsewhere and incorporate their revision notes anyway, but after signing with a different agent.

I’m not this precious about my editorial suggestions for you, but I do think it’s a bad idea to dump all of my feedback in your lap at once. It’s overwhelming, and it may come across as me not liking the book (which, if I’m calling to offer, is the opposite of what I want to convey). So I take my three biggest revision suggestions, including one or two that might be controversial, and float them your way.

Out of all the questions a literary agent might ask, this is the most important area for me. First, I get to see if you and I are on the same page editorially. If you’re writing a dark psychological thriller and I call, saying, “What I basically need from you is to make it more like the Clique series,” then we’re not going to be a good fit because you and I see the book differently and we want different things for it. (I sure hope I never miss the mark this badly…) It’s fun for me to get into revision back-and-forth with authors, even if we disagree.

But there’s workable disagreement and then there’s an impasse. If we butt up against the latter in the literary agent phone call, we probably shouldn’t work together. You’re always going to want one thing, I’m always going to want the other, and that sort of resentment is not good in a partnership.

How Will You Handle a Novel Revision?

Your revision style: If we do agree on most of my revision suggestions and it seems like we’re thinking about the book and its potential in a similar way, I still want to know about your revision process. I’ve found that being able to revise is the single most important skill a writer can have. I’ve taken on promising first projects, given tons of notes, and what really made or broke the new relationship is how well the author has been able to run with those notes and take the manuscript to the next level.

Every manuscript will need work once it comes in. I’ve only had one manuscript in my career come in that only needed a minor revision before going on to sell. How well and how thoroughly and how deeply you delve into the task of revision is paramount. Of course, I can’t know all the specifics of how it will really be from a literary agent phone call, but that’s what I’m really talking about when we talk about revision.

Is your project going to net interest from a literary agent? Are you ready for submission? Hire me for consulting or editing services and I can give you a no-nonsense, actionable take on your manuscript’s strengths and opportunities for growth.

Your Novel First Line, Part 1

I’ve been doing a lot of critique recently and have been thinking a lot about the novel first line. Not just opening paragraphs and pages (we just did a workshop series on that, check it out by clicking on the workshop tag), but first lines in particular. To drive the point home, check out this post that highlights what a successful story opening line looks like. Before you do that, though, here’s the note I’ve been giving out most often in my critiques, and it’s something for you to think about:

This could be the first line to any book.

novel first line, opening line
Sooo many novel first lines…does your stand out from the crowd?

When do I give this note? When I read a novel first line and don’t immediately understand something specific about a character or a world. When it really could go anywhere from the novel first line and make sense. This is a possibility when the novel first line is general enough, lacking detail, overly philosophical, or focused on description instead of character or action. The novel first line is, in a word, vague.

Example of Vague Novel First Line

It was the summer before everything changed.

It’s a pretty okay novel first line, by most standards. There’s tension implied — we are about to see a change, and change usually brings conflict with it. The reader also knows more than, we suppose, the characters, because we know there will be change, but it hasn’t happened in the plot yet. Not bad. I wouldn’t kick this novel first line out of slush.

But it could be stronger. For example, let’s give it the vague test. Could it be the opening line to any story? Yes. Let’s take a look. It could be a…

Sci-Fi Opening Line

It was the summer before everything changed. Back when the Zorlots were still in control of the ship, and the clones had yet to run amok.

Western Opening Line

It was the summer before everything changed. Before that yeller-bellied Winchester rolled on into town.

Romance Opening Line

It was the summer before everything changed. The count hadn’t yet seduced Mistress Nancy and quite literally lost his head.

I think you get it. (And by “it,” here, I mean you get that I can’t really write genre to save my yeller-bellied hide.) It’s a strong opening line, but is it your first line? A distinctive, specific novel first line that can only be the first line to your book and no other? That’s what I think you should be shooting for.

When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I’ll give you feedback on all aspects of your story: from the overall plot to the nitty-gritty of your story opening line.

How to Write a Query Letter to a Literary Agent

It has been a while since I’ve blogged about how to write a query letter to a literary agent. But I have a lot of new readers, and they may not have gone through my archives. So, for them, and for the world, I want to drive home a point about query etiquette that I first introduced in this post about appropriate rejection response:

Don’t serial query.

how to write a query letter to a literary agent, query etiquette
How to write a query letter to a literary agent: if you receive a rejection, practice, practice, practice, BEFORE you send your next round of queries.

Your Work May Not Be Ready Yet

When I pass on your work, I’m saying: this isn’t ready yet. You probably wrote that project during the current phase of your development as a writer. I’m saying you need to get to the next phase of your development, and possibly the phase after that, or the phase after that phase, before you’re ready.

So don’t send me something else, immediately, from the same phase of your development. Or, even worse, admit that you’re sending me something that’s even older than what you’re querying around now, that’s from an even earlier phase of your growth as a writer. That’s objectively bad query etiquette.

Give Your Skills Time to Evolve

I want people who grow and develop their craft every time they sit down to write. I don’t want your old stuff. I want your new ideas, your new skills, your evolving talent…once you’ve given it time to evolve. My favorite Ben Folds quote is pertinent here, and I say it every time I speak to an audience: “Time takes time, you know?”

For some reason, I’ve been noticing a lot of serial queries lately. A query. A pass. Another query, almost instantly, for an old project you just happen to have lying around. That could possibly work if you had a blockbuster drawer manuscript, but if you do, why didn’t you start out by querying that one?

Send me your strongest work, the best example of where you are as a writer today, then, if you get a pass, go back and write some more. Evolve. Then try again. LATER. Take the time to learn from each submission process. You can’t possibly do that until you’ve gone through the entire submission process, though.

How to Write a Query Letter to a Literary Agent: Be Thoughtful, Deliberate, and Strategic

You really shouldn’t be one of those writers who’s like a log ride: manuscript after manuscript after manuscript coming down your query chute. I only want to work with thoughtful writers who deliberately learn from each craft experience and then strategically plan their next move. No mad grasping. No flinging stuff against the wall just for the hell of it. That’s just my opinion about query etiquette, though. Maybe other agents appreciate getting hit with query after query for all the stuff you have up your sleeves. Go serial query them, once they raise their hands and endorse this practice. 🙂

Wondering how to write a query letter to a literary agent? Hire me as your query editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

A Crisis of Writing Confidence

Here’s a rather entertaining question from Jeff, but one the deals with an all-too-common evergreen creative ailment: writing confidence.

writing confidence, writing self-doubt, creative confidence
I don’t have the magic words to help a writer out of a crisis of writing confidence, but sometimes focusing on your inner creative assets helps get you back on track.

Recently I was infected with what I call “the demon of self-doubt” and I couldn’t work on my WIP for a month. A snarky comment in my crit group triggered an intense period of insecurity for me, and destructive thoughts like “I’m just not a good enough writer” and “my voice is too bland” kept buzzing around my brain. These thoughts kept looping back and getting stronger, like a bad song you can’t get out of you head (for example, “skyrockets in flight, whoosh, afternoon delight”).

I wrote in my journal, and I started some new material, but every time I went back to my WIP, I threw my hands up in air and wailed, “I’m not worthy!” I wouldn’t call this a writer’s block; it was instead a crisis of confidence.

Eventually I forced myself to forge ahead and I got over it. Now I’m writing my WIP again, but what can I do to avoid this if it happens in the future? Does this happen to other writers, or is it just me and my incredibly thin skin? What if the demon of self doubt is right, and in the end, I’m not a good writer and all my effort and hard work will be for nothing? Or is that the chance we all take?

Perseverance is Key

I like this question, and I’m pretty sure a lot of blog readers will recognize themselves in these sentences. Motivation and writing confidence come and go. The more motivated and confident you feel, the more you write. But if a seed is planted and you just can’t seem to get past a comment or a rejection (see my post on dealing with rejection), you tend to just cycle down and down and the doubt perpetuates even more doubt.

As Jeff says in his question, creativity is a chance we all take. So is any endeavor. You do it and then hope for the best. If the best doesn’t happen, you keep on doing it until you either reach your goal or you stop altogether. For some, rejection or creative block is cause enough to throw in the towel, but the urge to create and be creative will almost always remain.

I don’t have the magic words to help a writer out of a tough creative situation. Not only have I stopped writing because of time constraints, but I have my share of moments where I feel doubt and a lack of self-confidence. The thing I can say, though, is that those people who persevere through the “demon of self-doubt,” as Jeff calls it, are the only ones who will reach their creative goals. It’s a very obvious thought, but one that bears repeating.

Rigid Expectations Kill Writing Confidence

Also, sometimes the pressure of wanting to achieve a goal a certain way or having an unrealistic time frame is enough to kill your creative spark. A lot of writers get despondent because an agent or publication hasn’t happened yet. They write and they write and they write and yet the professional world doesn’t seem to be recognizing (or appreciating) their efforts.

Well, life rarely happens exactly as you plan. And publishing is unpredictable, not to mention slow (like, really slow). If you set your hopes on getting published or agented in a certain way, you will tend to give yourself not only a crisis of writing confidence, but an unrealistic goal, since most outsiders are not intimately familiar with the industry and how it works and what it really takes to succeed.

What Do You Do If Your Writing Confidence is Suffering?

So if you’re feeling really frustrated, about to give up, or that your work is not good enough, turn down the heat on chasing publication. What you write when you’re blocked and angry and doubtful will most likely not be a joy for others to read, and you’ll just be getting yourself further away from your goals instead of closer when you are in that mindset.

Sometimes frustration is a good thing — it spurns you on when you might otherwise quit — but I find that the specific frustration of not being published yet has one common cure: stop submitting and start nursing the writing.

Maybe it’s not time to submit yet. Maybe your writing craft or a particular project isn’t ready to go out into the world yet. Maybe you’ve recently gone on submission with something and it’s better to stop and see what you learned from that round instead of jumping right back into the ring.

Whatever the case, self-doubt tends to grow under scrutiny. If this is what you’re experiencing, it’s totally okay to pull back, rehabilitate your writing confidence and your creativity, and try to get published down the line. Publishers and agents will always be there (even in the digital future). Your excitement, positivity, and motivation may not, especially if you force it to take too many blows when it’s still growing. So focus on your inner creative assets when you’re feeling down, and the rest will come in time.

Developing your writing skills is a great way to shake off a creative slump. Hire me as your freelance editor and we’ll work on strengthening your skills together.

Dealing With Query Letter Rejection

Here’s a universal question about dealing with query letter rejection from longtime reader and friend of kidlit, Siski:

How do you recommend dealing with rejection? When it feels like you’ve exhausted all avenues? I know you took time out of writing…does that help bring back your enthusiasm to start over?

query letter rejection, dealing with rejection
Dealing with rejection is tough, but it helps to remember that you’re in control of your work and your attitude.

This is a great question, especially as we prepare to greet a new year. Of course, I hope 2011 is full of success and acceptance and the fulfillment of publishing dreams, but I know some of you will be dealing with rejection. So as we prepare to leap back at it come January 1st, I wanted to share some thoughts on this dreaded topic.

Dealing with Rejection: Understanding the Scale of Mastery

I was at Big Sur a few weeks ago and speaking with a lovely agency client. We were talking about writing journeys and she mentioned the idea of mastery. See, there is a scale of mastery that goes from Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence. If you’re thinking, “Say what?” I’ll explain:

Unconscious Incompetence

In other words, “ignorance is bliss.” You’ve just started writing and, wow, you’re really good. All your friends and family love your stuff. In fact, you have the makings of a J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown plot on your hands and you couldn’t be happier. You rush off your first draft to the industry’s top agents before revision — hey, that’s what the editor is for, right? — and then…the real world intrudes and gives you a spanking. This is your first taste of query letter rejection, and it strikes you like a bolt from the blue.

Conscious Incompetence

You take a step back. Wow. This writing stuff is actually pretty hard. It turns out you were doing okay but now you’ve started reading a whole lot more and you’re seeing what other writers are doing. You didn’t even know some of it was possible. This is when you realize that you have a lot to learn before you’re “ready for prime time.” Some writers hold off on resubmitting after rejection, as it’s more a time of contemplation and study.

Conscious Competence

You’ve thrown out your first book idea — or five — and now you really think you have The One: the project that will get published. It’s still a bit of a struggle to sit down and write, and sometimes it takes many revisions to really nail something, but your language is working, the writing is clean, and you’re developing your voice. Now you’re ready to start querying again, and you’re energized and feeling good.

Let’s pause for a minute. This is actually the stage where most writers get frustrated. They’ve gotten over their first, ignorant efforts, they’ve done a lot of work on themselves and on their writing, and they finally feel pretty masterful. However, the query letter rejections keep coming. And some of them are vague: the voice isn’t doing it for me, I liked it but didn’t love it, it doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi factor, it’s not competitive in today’s tough market…etc.

Meanwhile, writers at this stage have been reading a lot, are usually following the industry, and they feel like they get it at long last. So why are they still getting rejected? Why isn’t publication, finally, their reward after years of hard work in the trenches?

Because most writers who are functioning at the level of Conscious Competence haven’t reached mastery yet. There’s one more step, and this is the hardest to achieve:

Unconscious Competence

This is when you’re not really thinking…you’re doing. You don’t sit there breaking your brain for ideas. Your characters aren’t flat. You’re not struggling with voice. You’re not staring at the screen and waiting for the perfect image or metaphor or plot point or dialogue or characterizing detail to come to you. You’re just writing. And you’re writing well. Your craft level is on par with already-published writing. Everything just clicks, and you finally have the tools to elevate your stories to the publishable level, with enough authority and sophistication that your manuscripts demand publication. That’s not to say that masters don’t have tough days, but at least they’ve reached their cruising altitude and they don’t mind any slight turbulence along the way.

Query Letter Rejection in Perspective: What It Takes To Get Published

When I speak to writers at conferences, I talk about authority. Authors tell stories with authority, in an authoritative way. And those are the people I want to work with. If you’re not there yet — and 99.9% of people who contact me aren’t — don’t feel bad about it. In his book OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS, Malcolm Gladwell postulates that it takes about 10,000 hours, or 10 years, to achieve mastery in your chosen field or craft. Other writers say that how to create a story is to write 1,000,000 bad words. Most of the published writers I know say it took them about a decade to get their first book deal.

With publishing in a tailspin and fewer books achieving commercial success, agents and editors are really focusing their efforts on masterful writers. In terms of your own development as a person, you should strive to be the best you can possibly be. So if you are getting query letter rejection, don’t let it crush you. You’re just not there yet. And you shouldn’t expect to be. Just because some people get published their first time out (ahem, Stephenie Meyer), doesn’t mean that’s the way your story will go. Are you really justified in your angst? Can you say that you’ve put a decade of solid work into your craft?

You’re In Control Of Your Work and Your Attitude

The enlightening — and scary in a this-is-your-mission-should-you-choose-to-accept-it way — thing is: you can’t control the publishing industry or the “gatekeepers,” but you are in full control of your creative work. So instead of sitting there and griping about query letter rejection, the only empowering, right, and inspiring thing for you to do is to open up your Word doc and start reading, writing, and revising. The power to write something incredible lies in your hands. And if all that reading, writing, and revising sounds like too much work? Perhaps the path of being a writer isn’t the right one for you.

Keep going. The responsibility lies on your shoulders. And don’t be afraid to put down your old project and start a new one. You can’t cling to one idea in this or any other business. If you dig your claws in to something that has been rejected everywhere, of course you’re going to be miserable. Not to mention that if you’re already running out of ideas — and you’re not even published yet — you’re in deep trouble. So cast off your unsuccessful projects and work on something else. Focus on your craft. Plod along toward mastery. I send query letter rejections every single day of my life, but I don’t do it to wound or hurt or ruin. All I’m thinking as I press “Send” is, and I’m very serious here: “Not yet”or “Not yet, but soon.”

Receive a query letter rejection, learn from it if it has anything valuable or constructive to teach you, and move on as you stick with your trajectory toward Unconscious Competence. You shouldn’t view it as a negative thing, and never a personal thing. You should view it as encouragement to keep going and keep growing.

To top off this post, Siski also wanted me to ask: What helps when you’re dealing with rejection? Post your thoughts in the comments!

When you hire me as your book editor, I’ll help you build your writing toolbox so that you’re on the road towards mastery.

Why Manuscripts Are Rejected: Guest Blog by Chuck Sambuchino

Today’s guest post digs into why manuscripts are rejected, and comes from the fantastic Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest and Guide to Literary Agents blog and book fame. He’s celebrating the recent release of this fabulous book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK: DEFEND YOURSELF WHEN THE LAWN WARRIORS STRIKE (AND THEY WILL). Here, he shares the reason that you have a rejected manuscript on your hands, and I wholeheartedly agree. While I have posted on this topic a few times (like this post that addresses the question, I wrote a book, now what?), maybe Chuck’s take will finally make folks listen. 🙂

why manuscripts are rejected, rejected manuscript
Don’t give in to the “frustration submission.” Chip away at those problems until they’re corrected — THEN your work will be ready for agent eyes.

Why Manuscripts Are Rejected: Three Reasons

why manuscripts are rejected, rejected manuscriptWhen agents review pages of your manuscript, they may reject you for one of three reasons.

  1. They may realize that the story they’re reading is in a genre or category outside of what they handle. Rejected manuscript.
  2. Poor writing skills: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Rejected manuscript.
  3. A writer’s story just plain isn’t ready yet. In other words, it’s good—but simply being good doesn’t cut it. A piece of fiction has to be great to catch an agent’s eye.

Is Your Work Ready?

One of the main reasons why manuscripts are rejected is that writers turn in their work too early. As a writer myself, this is a problem I sympathize with. We work on a story for what seems like an eternity and then you get to a point where you just say, “If I read this darn thing one more cotton-pickin’ time, I will KILL SOMEBODY. I am so sick of looking at this thing that my eyeballs hurt. I am going to send it out and take my chances.”

So you’ve decided to send it out. But is it ready?

When is your work really ready? By that, I mean: When is your manuscript edited enough and polished to the point where you can confidently submit it to agents? I used to think there was no answer to this question, and that each project was so vastly different that it would be misleading to address the subject. But I was wrong.

If You Think It Has a Problem, It Does

The best answer I can give regarding why manuscripts are rejected is this: If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready. When I have edited full-length manuscripts (some for SCBWI friends and others on a freelance editor basis) and then met with the writers personally to discuss my thoughts, a strange thing happens. When I address a concern in the book, the writer will nod before I even finish the sentence. What this means is that they knew about the problem and suspected it was a weak point in the story. I have simply confirmed that which they already knew.

For Example…

  • “This part where he gets beat up—it doesn’t seem believable that so many kids just took off school like that.”
  • “If the main character is so stealth, then how come he gets caught by the bad guys here?”
  • “The story starts too slow. We need more action.”

A Manuscript With a Problem Isn’t Ready For Agent Eyes

In my experience, writers all seem to know many of their problematic issues before anyone even tells them. So all this brings me back to my main point: If you think your work has a problem, then it more than likely does—and any manuscript with a problem is not ready for agent eyes. If you find yourself saying, “Hmmm. I think the map just being there in the attic is kind of too lucky for the kids,” other readers will likely agree with you—and that is a great example of a typical problem. And every problem needs to be fixed before you submit to agents — or you’ll end up with a rejected manuscript.

This shows the importance of engaging beta readers for a manuscript critique—friends who will review the work once it’s written. They will come back to you with concerns, both big and small. You address the concerns in your next revision and send the work to more readers. Once readers stop coming back with concerns, you’re starting to get somewhere. If you think you have issues, or multiple critiquers agree on a problem, then you’re not ready for Querytime. When you and your readers can look at a book and say that all concerns are adequately addressed (and it therefore lacks any major problems), then and only then will you be ready.

My manuscript critique services will help you resolve problems in your work so it’s ready for agent eyes.

Resubmitting to a Literary Agent After Rejection

This is a common question I hear from writers about resubmitting to a literary agent. This version comes from Robert:

When an agent takes the time to write a personalized rejection (always nice of them) praising a manuscript, at least in part, how can a writer know if the agent might be interested in seeing a manuscript revision if offered or if the agent is just being kind? Is there a good way to offer a revision without risking annoying an agent who has already so politely declined?

resubmitting to a literary agent, manuscript revision
Thinking of resubmitting to a literary agent? Make sure you follow these important guidelines.

What Type of Rejection Did You Receive?

Most writers know that there are several types of query rejection (if this is news, click on the link for a post I’ve written on the subject to learn more and what they are). In terms of percentages, I’d say I give about 93% Form Rejections, 5% Personalized Rejections, and 2% Revision Rejections. What leads to a Personalized Rejection? If I’ve talked to you before, if I recognize your name from blog comments, if the writing is almost there, if something about the pitch or the project impressed me and made me sit up and take notice, you’ll get more than a Form Rejection from me. If I came really close to requesting the full but there was a deal breaker in terms of voice or writing or premise, I’ll send a Revision Rejection. These distinctions are important when you’re considering resubmitting to a literary agent.

I have a really strict system in my head (if you have any doubt, see my posts about slush pile secrets and what literary agents want). For me, personally, if I don’t give you a Revision Rejection, it’s not because I didn’t think about it and not because I don’t know that you want one. I did think about it and I know that the Revision Rejection and the door it opens is something that writers want. That’s why I give it so deliberately. If I was giving everyone a Revision Rejection, that would decrease the importance of the RR and, honestly, give writers false hope.

It’s my job as an agent to spot dead-on potential in manuscripts. Am I sometimes wrong? Of course. Do I sometimes miss good stuff? Sure. But the only thing I really have going for me when I approach submissions is my judgment. Good or bad, wrong or right, I have to trust it. And when I ask for a manuscript revision from one writer and not from another, that’s me listening to my gut and making a choice.

Options for Resubmitting to a Literary Agent

So if I don’t ask you for a manuscript revision outright, what can you do? Emailing me immediately to ask if I’d be interested in seeing a revision down the line is probably not your best bet. Your manuscript in its current form, the form I rejected, is still fresh in my mind. I chose not to send you a Revision Rejection. I may not be feeling overly optimistic about the project. An immediate email that proposes resubmitting to a literary agent isn’t going to make them more receptive.

Your other option? Well, you can read a related post about resubmitting after rejection for bigger manuscript questions after a rejection. Or you can just go ahead and do the manuscript revision — assuming that other agents felt similarly and you didn’t manage to land representation on this submission round — and then present me with a query for the revised manuscript months later, when it is new again. (A query, mind you, don’t just send the full, as before.) I much prefer that method of resubmitting to a literary agent.

Take Your Time With Manuscript Revision

I firmly believe that manuscript revision doesn’t happen quickly. It can’t. So much of the revision process is subconscious, and you can’t rush your “back brain.” So make sure you disappear into your revision cave for months and months before trying to present the project as a revised version. Because if you’re getting rejected all over the place, you probably need to do some heavy revision. Something isn’t working. And if something isn’t working, you can’t address that in a week or two.

So if you’re interested in resubmitting to a literary agent who sent you something nice but that wasn’t an outright Revision Rejection, I suggest doing the revision and trying them again, but only after serious time has passed.

Though I’m no longer a gatekeeper, I can bring my literary agent experience to your novel. Hire me as a developmental editor.