What Does a Form Rejection Mean When Querying A Novel?

I’ve queried before.

I’ve queried this story before.

Thirty-six rejections in, this story has been decently queried, but has not blanketed the literary agent world. (Especially since I find myself revising the entire piece every ten rejections or so.)

One of those revisions was based on a revise-and-resubmit, one of those times was based on finding a writing mentor who could help me bring my writing to the next level.

After I finished my latest round of revisions, I queried five agents back in July. The most recent rejection arrived just last week — two months after I’d closed out the agent as “no reply means no thank you.” But, closure is kind.

Why haven’t I queried more? Well, I told myself I was finishing the revisions on my middle-grade story for Pitch Wars. I was prepping for my NaNoWriMo story. And I wanted to see how my new query and first pages worked.

All I’ve gotten is a stack of form rejection letters.

How to handle rejection

  1. Indulge in self-pity — Not forever. Not even for a week (unless you really need it). But? For a night or two? Wallow in it. Let yourself grieve over the hope that has been shattered and eat chocolate or junk food. Complain (privately) to a few trusted friends.
  2. Distraction — Got other projects to work on? Books or shows to binge? Maybe you’re also moving, or helping school your children. There’s always stress-cleaning your house from top to bottom and re-alphabetizing your bookcase (forgetting this sorted-by-color trend). Distraction can help a lot.
  3. Track it — If you can, see every rejection as a step closer to publication. Maybe you’re going for 100 rejections. Maybe you’ve decided if you hit a certain number without getting an agent, you’re going to self-publish. So, update your querytracker.net account, or your spreadsheet, or wherever you’re tracking who you’re querying and from which agency (because some agencies only allow one query for all their agents combined). Some people paper walls with printed out rejection letters, or add a bead to a necklace, or in some way commemorate every rejection on their path.
  4. Assess — What is the problem? Do you have a writer friend you can trust to tell you? Can you glean anything from the rejection? Some tell you something… others, are just polite form rejections.

What can one gleam from form rejections?

A form rejection tells you… nothing. Although, there are a few different things one can think.

  1. The query is badly written and not pulling people in. But… I felt my query letter was solid, if not amazing. Although, it is easier to write someone else’s query, I feel confident in my query writing skills.
  2. The query is well-written, but the story is trite and no one is interested. Maybe. I’m my own target audience, but sometimes, from a higher level, a lot of fantasy quests can feel repetitive.
  3. The first ten pages let the story down, and that’s why no one wants more. It feels weird to say this, but… the last time I read through my story, my first third of my book even impressed ME, and I’m the one who wrote it. Although, the one revise-and-resubmit did suggest more backstory before the inciting incident, and maybe I am starting too quickly, before you care about the characters?
  4. Maybe 2020 was a horrid time to be querying, especially young adult fantasy. Agents were too wary and not picking up much of anything. I mean, it can always be the market, right. My book is on the cusp of YA and adult, should I do a few edits so I can query it in the wider adult fantasy market? Should I just wait a little for people to recover from 2020 and then send out, as people feel more eager for new stories?
  5. Those five agents weren’t right for the story, but the right agent (and publisher) are out there waiting. Possibly! This is what I keep telling myself. Maybe I’ll start querying again in mid-January, waiting a week or so after the agents re-open to not get lost in the flood, probably a Tuesday morning, after the coffee’s kicked in, before the lunch hunger starts to distract them…

Querying is scary. There’s very little solid feedback — thanks to both outlier writers-of-yore-and-today who argued and harassed agents, as well as the massive number of querying writers these days, as technology makes the process more accessible than ever. One has to have faith in one’s writing abilities, confidence that the story can stand on its own, and the perseverance to see it through.

Best of luck to all of you in the query trenches. If you’re self-publishing, I salute your bravery! And? Wish me luck in 2021!

#38 Query Corner – “Bat Kid And Banana Slug”

Welcome to:

Morgan’s Query Corner:

Fresh eyes for your query quandaries.

All Sophie wants is a best friend, but camp is hard for this weirdo.

NOTE: If you submit your query to me (morgan.s.hazelwood@gmail.com), and you are selected for inclusion, I will give you a high-level review, in-line feedback, and my own draft of your query. If this is your query, feel free to use or ignore as much of the advice and suggestions as you wish.

[Disclaimer: Any query selected for the page will be posted on this website for perpetuity. I am an amateur with no actual accepted queries and a good number of form rejections. This does not guarantee an agent or even an amazing query, just a new take by someone who’s read The Query Shark archives twice and enjoys playing with queries.]

Overall Impression:

This querier’s story was fun, upbeat, and almost there! They mostly wanted confirmation they were on the right path. Of course…

  • I did tighten the story-part a smidge…

Queryist’s Original:


Dear Specific Agent,

I’m excited that you are actively seeking [example: friendship stories in middle grade fiction, and books that include main characters with invisible disabilities]. BAT KID AND BANANA SLUG is a 46,000 word contemporary MG novel for readers who enjoyed Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree and Gillian McDunn’s Caterpillar Summer. It has received feedback from sensitivity readers for neurodiversity and nonbinary identity.


When eleven-year-old Sophie discovers that she can navigate like a bat, she hopes her new skill is her ticket to fitting in–until the other kids at summer camp decide she’s rabid like a bat too.

All Sophie wants out of summer camp is a best friend. She thought she’d found one in her roommate–a kid who wears a hat with antennae on it and goes by the nickname Banana Slug. Banana Slug even asked her to perform as a team in the camp talent show! But that was before the other kids decided she was a weirdo and before Sophie gave away the bat hat that Banana Slug had made for her.

Now Banana Slug isn’t speaking to her and Sophie doesn’t know how to fix things. She’ll definitely leave camp as alone as she arrived. But with the talent show coming up, Sophie might just risk going down in camp history as the weirdest kid ever–as long as it means winging her way back to friendship.

My picture book was awarded second place in [writing contest], and three of my short stories have been published in anthologies. I’m a member of PNWA and SCBWI, and a children’s book reviewer for [place]. I also parent a child with sensory processing disorder, who has developed her own set of super-skills in response to her brain’s different way of experiencing the world.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Q38


The query was solid, (although whether to include loglines is always a personal choice.)

I just trimmed some of the plot, to focus on the stakes.

My Revision:



All Sophie wants out of summer camp is a best friend. She thought she’d found one in her roommate–a kid who wears a hat with antennae on it and goes by the nickname Banana Slug. Banana Slug even asked her to perform as a team in the camp talent show! But when she learned how to navigate like a bat (by shrieking), the other kids decided she was a weirdo. Even giving away the bat hat that Banana Slug had made for her didn’t get them off her case.

Now Banana Slug isn’t speaking to her and Sophie doesn’t know how to fix things. With the talent show coming up, Sophie got to risk going down in camp history as the weirdest kid ever–if she wants to wing her way back into friends with Banana Slug.


Q38 was happy for my input, tweaked her query, and …

Just reported back that she got an AGENT! With this query.

Dear [Agent],

Thanks for accepting my referral! BAT KID AND BANANA SLUG is a 44,000 word contemporary lower middle grade novel for readers who enjoyed Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree and Gillian McDunn’s Caterpillar Summer. It has received feedback from sensitivity readers for neurodiversity and nonbinary identity.

Eleven-year-old Sophie knows she’s different – after all most kids don’t wear noise-muffling headphones or barf when they get overstimulated. Plus, most kids have a best friend. Sophie hopes to find a friend at sleepaway camp, but social skills aren’t her strong suit. She spends a lot of time studying bats instead. Luckily Sophie’s roommate – a kid nicknamed Banana Slug – thinks Sophie’s bat fascination is cool and crochets a bat hat for Sophie.

Then teasing drives Sophie to give the hat away, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the new friendship. The only way Sophie can think to fix things is through the camp talent show. But even if she can convince Banana Slug to join her in a performance, there’s the risk that they’ll go down in camp history as the weirdest kids ever. Sophie must convince herself that quirky doesn’t have to mean friendless – and that the Amazing Bat Kid and Banana Slug might be the greatest duo ever.

My unpublished picture book was awarded second place in [writing contest], and three of my short stories have been published in anthologies. I’m a member of PNWA and SCBWI, and a children’s book reviewer for [place]. I also parent a child with sensory processing disorder, who has developed her own set of super-skills in response to her brain’s different way of experiencing the world.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Q38

Let’s all congratulate Q38, and hope their agent finds a publisher soon!


And for the rest of you out there?
Best of luck in the query trenches!

#37 Query Corner – “The Light’s Guardians”

Welcome to:

Morgan’s Query Corner:

Fresh eyes for your query quandaries.

Veteran Graham Sharris thought he knew the risks of guarding the monsters in the labs. His partner, recruit Soko, (don’t ask her her birth name) has already managed to earn Sharris’s guarded respect. But when one of the monsters escapes, the pair are dragged into an ancient war for the very soul of the multiverse.

NOTE: If you submit your query to me (morgan.s.hazelwood@gmail.com), and you are selected for inclusion, I will give you a high-level review, in-line feedback, and my own draft of your query. If this is your query, feel free to use or ignore as much of the advice and suggestions as you wish.

[Disclaimer: Any query selected for the page will be posted on this website for perpetuity. I am an amateur with no actual accepted queries and a good number of form rejections. This does not guarantee an agent or even an amazing query, just a new take by someone who’s read The Query Shark archives twice and enjoys playing with queries.]

Overall Impression:

The querier had a fun story, but, as is common, gave some blurb-text, and fell into the trap of talking about the novel, rather than talking about the story story and the stakes.

  • Queries are usually told in the first person, present tense, even if the story is not, focused on the stakes, not the plot. So, I’m just gonna zoom in a bit.
  • If you have 2 POV characters, I’ve found the best thing to do is give them each their own short paragraph and bring it all together in a final paragraph. That demonstrates the equal-nature of their stories without having to spell it out.
  • Trilogies are a hard-sell, they often don’t want to gamble on 3 books when they don’t know how well your first book will do. The standard advice is to tease series-potential… but only if the book can actually stand alone.

As we worked the edits, we ended up having a long discussion about comps — comparison novels.

The ideal comp: STORY_A meets STORY_B, should be under 3 years old, sold well, but wasn’t a run-away success like Harry Potter, and fits the genre and voice of your story, without being even remotely the same story.

This is basically impossible. I try for one recent novel, and let my other comp be: older, “too” popular, a tv-show or movie, or some other reference.

Another way to do comps is calling out an aspect, just try not to oversell. Such as “With a setting reminiscent of STORY_A, and the world-building of STORY_B” or “The fast-witted dialogue of STORY_C”… you see how that works. You can reference more popular works, but this helps the agent understand what you were going for, and hopefully get a feel for your novel.

Queryist’s Original:


Dear Agent,

With fire and ice I stand before the wave of corruption, the last line of defense. We are The Light’s Guardians! Till next they ride!


Graham Sharris and Soko (don’t ask her her birth name) are both junior officers in a corporate owned army. Sharris is a veteran of the corporate armies (called Corpsies) with the physical and mental scars to prove it. Soko is a newer Corpsie though she is badass and had
rapidly proved her competence before the story begins. They have a very good working relationship where they relentlessly tease each other but also support each other and get themselves through the horrors they experience. They both have equal in agency in the story. [You’re telling about the characters, not talking about stakes! If this is 2 points of view, show it]

Every day is struggle to survive the experimental monsters of the mad scientists in the lab they are assigned to. Everything changes when something they did not know about breaks out and drags them into an ancient war for the very soul of multiverse. [Vague!] However, it is not a war fought with vast armadas or massive armies, but with two individuals from every planet. These people are enhanced and trained to fight to heal their own world and people from a corruption
seeking to subjugate all people. If Soko and Sharris can survive the training they might just be able to get back to their world and start making a difference to save it from the unchecked festering evil.

The Light’s Guardians is a 90,000 word adult science fiction/fantasy novel and is the first in a trilogy.
[Sell one book at a time.]

I am an officer in the Army National Guard which I used for creating several of my characters. I live in the Washington D.C. area and typically write from home.


Thank you for your time and consideration
.

Sincerely,
Q37


The querier clearly had a vivid world with tons of world building and great characterization. But, the non-specificity made the plot feel like it could describe dozens of stories.

Keep it specific.

Some comps, even stylistic ones could strengthen the query. (Hence the discussion I gave the run-down on, above).

My Revision:

Dear Agent,

With fire and ice, I stand before the wave of corruption, the last line of defense. We are The Light’s Guardians! Till next they ride!

Graham Sharris thought he knew the risks of guarding the monsters in the labs, as a veteran of the Corpsies — the corporate armies — with the physical and mental scars to prove it. But when something from deep in the labs escapes, he and his partner are dragged into an ancient war for the very soul of the multiverse.

Soko, (don’t ask her her birth name) is a newer Corpsie who’s already managed to earn Sharris’s guarded respect. When she and Sharris are chosen to defend their world, she welcomes the challenge as a chance to prove to herself, once and for all, that she’s better than where she came from. [or is she righting a wrong, having let the thing escape?]

To stop the corruption that seeks to subjugate all people across the multiverse, Soko and Sharris must use every skill they’ve learned from a past they’d both rather forget if they’re going to survive the training. Until then, there’s no one back home to keep the festering evil in check.

The Light’s Guardians is a 90,000-word adult science fiction/fantasy novel with series potential. [And comps? Like Punisher meets Lord of the rings. Or With the world-building of Star Wars and the banter of a Jim Butcher novel, The Light’s Guardians is… Only, without such well-known names]

I am an officer in the Army National Guard which I used for creating several of my characters. I write from my home in the Washington D.C. area.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Q37


Q37 was excited to get the feedback and happy to send me an updated draft, here:

Dear Agent,

With fire and ice, I stand before the wave of corruption, the last line of defense. We are The Light’s Guardians! Till next they ride!

Graham Sharris thought he finally had a program to manage the risks of guarding the monsters in the labs. As a veteran of the Corpsies — the corporate armies — with the physical and mental scars to prove it, he was just starting to hope again that he could get his people through this assignment. But when something from deep in the labs escapes, he and his partner are dragged into an ancient war for the very soul of the multiverse.

Soko, (don’t ask her her birth name) is a newer Corpsie who’s already managed to earn Sharris’s respect. When she and Sharris are chosen to defend their world, she welcomes the challenge as a chance to prove to herself, once and for all, that she’s better than where she came from. Soko won’t hesitate to call out stupidity any power that stands before her, along the way.

To stop the corruption that seeks to subjugate all people across the multiverse, Soko and Sharris must use every skill they’ve learned from a past they’d both rather forget if they’re going to survive the training. Until then, there’s no one back home to keep the festering evil in check.

The Light’s Guardians is a 90,000-word adult science fiction/fantasy novel with series potential. It has the world building and in world mythology of Children of Blood and Bone, the banter of Jim Butcher with the aliens, monsters, and gods of Monstress.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Q37

Let’s all wish the best of luck to Q37!


And for the rest of you out there?
Best of luck in the query trenches!

#36 Query Corner – “The Holy Shuriken” (And a discussion about Content Warnings)

Welcome to:

Morgan’s Query Corner:

Fresh eyes for your query quandaries.

When 16yo Renee Ballard is rescued from demonic armadillos by ninja Jesuit priests, her first night studying abroad, she believes God is calling her to stop human trafficking. [Language and mature themes]

NOTE: If you submit your query to me (morgan.s.hazelwood@gmail.com), and you are selected for inclusion, I will give you a high-level review, in-line feedback, and my own draft of your query. If this is your query, feel free to use or ignore as much of the advice and suggestions as you wish.

[Disclaimer: Any query selected for the page will be posted on this website for perpetuity. I am an amateur with no actual accepted queries and a good number of form rejections. This does not guarantee an agent or even an amazing query, just a new take by someone who’s read The Query Shark archives twice and enjoys playing with queries.]

Overall Impression:

The querier had a great blurb — but not quite a query. It’s a decent length, but I streamlined it a bit anyway, cause I can’t help myself.  Feel free to take or ignore these suggestions as you see fit.

  1. It’s got almost too much flavor-text for a query – make sure you focus on the main character’s stakes.
  2. Having the protagonist and the target have 2 syllable names starting with R is a little confusing.
  3.  You never need to mention how little experience you have.

The author, Phil Gross, and I had another discussion about adding an actual content warning to the query letter itself. As a condition for sharing his query with you, he asked that I include both his name and his website: PhilGrossAuthor. He clearly doesn’t shy away from accountability.

His proposed note: “CW: the existence of sexual assault as it pertains to human trafficking is mentioned, but neither described, detailed, nor portrayed. There are also brief instances of graphic violence.

My reply was to add it to the stats paragraph and to lead with that so that agents and publishers could self-select if the story was for them.

I haven’t seen it done explicitly as such. I have seen themes and such added to the stat paragraph. As such, I’d probably not call it a content warning, but list it. If you can find something that is evocative on the graphic violence as a comp, that might be helpful

THE HOLY SHURIKEN is a 59,000-word urban fantasy for YA audiences. It combines the absurdist humor of [Something], with the graphic action of [Soemthing else]. OR This irreverent romp should appeal to fans of X and Y. THE HOLY SHURIKEN contains references to the existence of sexual assault as it pertains to human trafficking is mentioned, but neither described, detailed, nor portrayed.

I’ve been in panels that discussed YA After Dark and agreed with the panelists. YA doesn’t need to be sugar-coated. Dark themes can help people of all ages who are dealing with abuse/etc know that they’re not alone, and model ways to (or not to) cope. Dark themes can help people who haven’t suffering learn empathy.

If you are comfortable with the aforementioned subject matter, read on.

Queryist’s Original:


Dear Editor,

Some people say Renee is brave. 

Others say Renee is bold. 

Her roommate says she’s a bitch. 

When sixteen-year-old Renee Ballard is rescued from demonic armadillos by ninja Jesuit priests on her first night studying abroad in Cancún, she believes God is calling her to become His holy warrior. [Wow. That’s a set-up.]

In order to prove herself a worthy ninja and end the demonic intrusion, Renee begins an eager hunt for the demons’ source. Brother Owen, her mysterious adviser, claims that ‘demons are attracted to great sin.’ Renee tracks down a terrible sinner, charismatic teenager Reuben García, a human trafficker who needs help exorcising a demon. [I’m getting either con, delusions, or a Buffy vibe here. And I’m not sure which!]

Repulsed by Reuben’s line of business, Renee plots to murder him. Her grand scheme: make it look like an accident while they play Ultimate Frisbee. With her life and soul on the line, Renee must come back from the edge and remember mercy (even for Reuben!)—or become the radicalized, violent ‘hero’ she’s come to idolize.

THE HOLY SHURIKEN is a 59,000-word urban fantasy for YA audiences. THE HOLY SHURIKEN contains references to the existence of sexual assault as it pertains to human trafficking, but such content is neither described, detailed, nor portrayed. The novel also includes brief instances of graphic violence. [Well worded. Tricky note]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Q36


You can see how his voice comes through strongly and can get a feel for the story and the tone, but could stick closer to the stakes, instead of fleshing out the whole world.

Some comps, even stylistic ones could strengthen the query.

My Revision:

Dear Editor,

Some people say Renee is brave. 

Others say Renee is bold. 

Her roommate says she’s a bitch. 

When sixteen-year-old Renee Ballard is rescued from demonic armadillos by ninja Jesuit priests on her first night of study abroad in Cancún, she knows what she wants to do with her life.

In order to prove herself a worthy ninja and end the demonic intrusion, Renee begins an eager hunt for the demons’ source. Brother Owen, her mysterious adviser, claims that ‘demons are attracted to great sin’. Renee tracks down a terrible sinner, charismatic teenager Reuben García, a human trafficker who needs help exorcising a demon. 

Repulsed by Reuben’s line of business, Renee plots to murder him. Her grand scheme: make it look like an accident while they play Ultimate Frisbee. She risks her and her friends’ lives because she believes God has called her to be Reuben’s executioner. With her life and soul on the line, Renee must remember mercy (even for Reuben!) — or become the radicalized, violent ‘hero’ she’s come to idolize.

THE HOLY SHURIKEN is a 59,000-word urban fantasy for YA audiences. It combines the absurdist humor of [Something], with the action-packed adventure of [Something else]. OR This irreverent romp should appeal to fans of X and Y.

I write from my home [in/near place].

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Q36


Let’s all wish the best of luck to Phil! For those people out there who need this story.


And for the rest of you out there?
Best of luck in the query trenches!