As a writer, you have to learn to live on the crumbs of positive rejections: those letters you get from editors and agents that say, “I found much to admire,” or “you’re a good writer,” and end with, “but I’ve decided to pass,” or “I didn’t connect with the material as much as I had hoped.”
The crumbs don’t make a full meal, but they give you enough sustenance to keep going, keep trying, keep writing.
For years I lived on encouraging rejections, first while submitting short stories to literary magazines and later while querying agents. Simply getting a manuscript request from an agent was like receiving a hearty slice of fortitude, and a rejection letter like the one I received a month ago (see below) could keep my ego boosted for weeks:
Thanks so much for sending me [NAME OF NOVEL]. I really loved this concept and think you are a wonderful writer. I’m going to regretfully pass because I ended up wanting more complexity from both the plot and the characters, but I am very glad you sent this to me and am grateful for the chance to have read it.
In 2014, I finally got a big, fat yes. A top-notch agent at a prestigious agency wanted to represent me. I felt like I had taken a huge step forward in my writing career, and for a brief moment, my ego was sated.
But, after more than six months of working with him on readying my novel for submission to New York editors, my agent decided (without giving me advanced warning) to quit his job. This meant I no longer had an agent.
He gave me a list of other agents and told me to query them. “Say you’re coming at my recommendation,” he suggested. (Because nothing works better in this business than name-dropping.)
But, with the exception of one, I never heard back from any of the people on his list. (And that one agent, after requesting my full manuscript in September, has not gotten back to me, and I’ve sent her two follow-up emails and checked my spam folder religiously.)
It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to feel like I’ve taken a step backwards and now I can’t manage to scramble up to the agented place I was standing not too long ago. I had an agent who thought my work was ready to be published. So why am I having such a hard time finding a new agent?
My friend Jeni says querying is for the birds and the best way to get a new agent is to meet one in person. So I’m thinking about going to Grubb Street’s Muse Conference in Boston at the end of April to hob-nob with industry professionals. But until then, I figured, I’d query.
So I researched agents and queried and got a few manuscript requests. The requests didn’t satiate me this time, though. I knew better than to get my hopes up, and sure enough, soon I started receiving rejections, like this one I got just the other day:
Thank you for your patience while we considered your work. In the end, while there was much to be admired, we did not fall in love with the overall execution in a way we need to take on a project, especially given this is such a difficult time for fiction.
For what it’s worth to know, we think you have talent, and would consider other works from you in the future. With that said, the problem with this ms was that while not bad, and definitely better than most we see– retellings are VERY difficult to sell unless they are absolutely riveting. This one lacks a certain degree of depth and suspense/tension, even for a MG. It’s a breezy and interesting read, but in the end we don’t think it’s strong enough all things considered, again, since it is a retelling.
I am sorry not to be writing with better news, but this business is so subjective, and another agent might very well feel differently. You deserve an agent with whom your work really resonates, and I’m just sorry that wasn’t us. I sincerely wish you luck on this journey and thank you all the same for reaching out.
I tried to pick out the positive crumbs from the letter: much to be admired, you have talent, interesting read. But they weren’t satisfying me the way they used to.
So then I considered the reasons it was rejected: lack of depth and suspense, simply not strong enough. I thought back to the other positive rejection letter I’d gotten recently. Lacking complexity, the agent had said.
I don’t think it’s wise to ignore these criticisms. This is a very difficult time to sell books, and chances are, I’m not going to be successful unless my book is something incredible. Because that’s what these agents seem to be saying to me: “hey, not bad, but I need it to knock my socks off, and it didn’t.”
Heck, I don’t want to write a book that’s only decent. I want to write a book that is complex and exciting and so completely riveting that it will totally wow these agents who look at hundreds of queries a day.
On the one hand, it’s depressing. Here I thought I was ready to be published, but maybe I’m not there yet. My ego is starved, and I’ve been doing the Charlie Brown shuffle for the past few days.
On the other hand, this latest rejection is, perhaps, a much-needed wake-up call. It made me realize that I have to do better. As much as my ego would like to be showered with praise, maybe my books just aren’t good enough yet. Maybe I need to consider a major revision. Or write something new that is more complex and suspenseful. I’m a good writer and I’ve got talent – so there’s no reason for me to quit! But there’s also no reason for me to think I can’t do better.
What I’m saying is, encouraging rejections are a good way to boost your ego and give you gumption when that’s what you need, but sometimes you have to consider why your work got rejected, and what you can do to improve.
Hemingway said that he wrote better when his stomach was growling. Maybe it’s time for me to stop filling up on the crumbs of these positive rejections and work for a while with an ego that is humble and hungry.