Brace yourself, because you’re gonna get rejection letters. Even when a project ends up finding a literary agent and a publisher, the no’s almost always arrive before the yes’s.
Aside from making great wallpaper, kindling, and kitty litter, believe it or not rejection letters do serve a purpose. You can make yourself a better and more successful writer if you analyze them properly.
Deciphering rejection letters
Here’s the problem with rejection letters: it’s practically impossible to make sense of a form letter that maybe includes one little teensy tiny bit of individualized advice. Plus, they can be completely contradictory. One rejection letter could say “needs more monkeys” (probably came from me) and the other letter could say “too many monkeys” (some lesser agent).
What’s a writer to do?
Well, first let me tackle this from the other side so you have a sense of what’s happening here.
What rejections are like from an agent’s perspective
I’m going to be totally honest with you. When I was a literary agent, my rejection letters were not usually very helpful. They tended to be vague, formulaic, and brief. But polite!
In my defense, I had a very good reason for this. I didn’t want to lead anyone astray.
When I was a manuscript or proposal was a “pass” for me, chances were it was because I just wasn’t feeling that zing that I felt whenever I was reading something I wanted to take on. But I wasn’t always able to articulate precisely why exactly that was, and oftentimes I hadn’t read enough to be able to provide a particularly insightful critique.
If I was able to put my finger on the reason for the lack of zing I would absolutely tell the writer. But most times? I said enough to show the author I really read it, but not enough that my response would actually be all that helpful.
What’s a writer to do?
Now that I’ve lowered your expectations, I’m going to tell you a few scenarios in which rejection letters can actually be helpful.
Here’s the secret to understanding these maddening missives:
Rejection letters are usually pretty worthless by themselves.
Unless a rejection letter happens to be incredibly detailed and the feedback resonates with you on a gut level (sort of like the holy grail of rejections), you’re probably not going to learn too much. And you’re going to learn even less if you analyze a rejection letter for hidden meaning (you’re also going to rack up the psychiatry bills).
One letter by itself usually isn’t much help. BUT. When you start accumulating rejections you can start to make more sense of them by analyzing the trends.
Are you receiving manuscript requests?
Let’s say you received twenty-five rejections from agents on the query to your new novel. If you didn’t get a single manuscript request and you received only form rejection letters (i.e. a rejection that didn’t specifically mention an aspect of your work), something’s wrong.
It could be that your project isn’t marketable, your query letter wasn’t good, you queried the wrong agents… something is preventing you from getting in the door. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer, it just means that you’re in for a reevaluation of your project and your approach.
If, however, you’re getting requests for partials (hooray for you!) and fulls (even better!), but you’re not getting an agent to bite, it may mean that you’re close but that something isn’t quite right, and maybe you can make some changes that will make your project better.
This is where an accumulation of a some personalized rejection letters can actually be helpful in gauging how well things are going.
Listen to personalized feedback
Once you’ve accumulated some personalized rejection letters, spread those bad boys out on the table. Avoid the temptation to set fire to said table. And start to analyze the common threads.
Don’t go nuts with this, you aren’t looking to crack some secret code here, just see if there are a few common threads that you can pick out. Maybe a few people said that your project isn’t marketable. Or maybe a few had similar problems with certain characters or plot lines.
Here’s the next most important step: if you are hearing the same thing more than once: listen. Don’t say, “Oh, well, my work is what it is, they’re just STUPID.” Agents are not stupid. Most of the time. Consider making that change. Try again.
You ultimately have to write the book you want to write and you shouldn’t bend past your comfort level. But don’t overthink a rejection letter that leaves you saying, “Huh?”
Focus on the rejection letters that:
- Resonate with your gut
- Repeat feedback that you’ve heard before
If you do that, you’ll learn as much as possible from your rejection letters without going crazy.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Jove decadent by Ramon Casas