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!

How To Handle Rejection Letters – #Balticon Panels

The panelists were: Ken Schrader, Joshua Bilmes, Diane Weinstein, Irette Y Patterson, and Scott Andrews

What’s Your Experience With Rejection Letters?

  • Diane Weinstein: She wrote 1,000 rejection letters and never signed her name.
  • Joshua Bilmes: As an agent, when he submits works he’s agenting to publishers, 98+% of the stuff he submits gets rejected.
  • Scott Andrews: Writes and publishes a magazine, “Beneath Ceaseless Skies.” He considers it a point of pride to give a personalized rejection, because he knows he likes them himself. (Also, hopefully it cuts down on the number of Science-fiction submissions he gets for his fantasy themed magazine.)
  • Irette Patterson: Has only been on the receiving end. But agrees that Scott writes great rejection letters.
  • Ken Schrader: Agrees that personalized rejection letters are awesome.

Advice Upon Receiving Rejection Letters

  • “Just don’t be a shit.” – Diane Weinstein quoting Connie Willis. Remember they’re not personal.
  • Never argue with the rejection. – Scott Andrews
  • Never argue that you should be able to do something, just because another author does. – Joshua Bilmes
  • Just because you have a reason to do something ‘wrong’, doesn’t mean you should. – Joshua Bilmes
  • If you get a personalized rejection letter, with useful advice–it is still NOT a “Revise and Resubmit” unless they specifically say so. – Diane Weinstein

“Rejections can seem arbitrary,” said Diane Weinstein.

“Life is arbitrary,” replied Joshua Bilmes.

Worst Rejection Letter

  • A partial slip of paper, with the rejection form printed, then sliced to be mailed to all the rejectees. Not even a full page!
  • Ken Schrader received a rejection letter signed [Designated Reader]. They didn’t even bother making sure their name was selected.

Ways to Recover After a Rejection

  • Critique groups can be helpful – both in being supportive and getting you used to taking criticism
  • You can post online for support – BUT! Be general: don’t name names or share quotes
  • Send it out to another agent! Don’t just sit on it.
  • If you get a personalized rejection letter, many (but not all) agents enjoy a thank you note. Keep it short and sweet, though.
  • Ken Schrader had luck once asking, “What was it that [turned you off]?”, but don’t expect a response.
  • As Douglas Adams says, “Don’t Panic!” Joshua Bilmes and his agents typically submit works they’re representing to 12-14 editors and usually only get one offer. Auctions are rare. Most stuff is rejected by more people than not.

Remember, agents reject a lot of competent stuff, the story needs the right spark on the right day – Diane Weinstein.