How to: Interpret Rejection

Oh ho, I know what you’re thinking.

‘There is no universal way to interpret rejections’ or ‘Agents use different methods of rejection all the time so it would be ill-advised to read into them’ or even ‘Oh no, another writer sharing their personal opinions on rejection…’

Before everyone grabs their pitchforks or smelling salts, yes. All of the above are TRUE.

This post is part pisstake (or ‘satire’ for those not accustomed to UK lingo) and part observation from my own experience. I maintain you CAN see wider patterns– IF you have enough rejections to constitute a decent sample size.

In other words, you need as many rejections as I have. And, while I’m not going to put a number here, that’s a lot. It’s enough for me to give a nod of respect to writers that hit 100. I shrug with indifference when someone bemoans at receiving 80. I scoff when a project is chucked after 50, and this evolves into maniacal laughter when the anxious writer feverishly despairs over 20 or 30.

Once, someone was ready to set aside their MS after ONE rejection. ONE. Oh, sweet, summer child. The writing world is cruel and one rejection might not mean a thing about your work (unless, maybe, the sender says something along the lines of ‘don’t contact me again,’ in which case you probably screwed up– big time).

So my experience with rejection? It started the way a lot of new writers do: querying too early.

**As an aside, DON’T DO THIS. Querying is hard work, agents have limited time, and even if you think your MS is ready, odds are it isn’t if this is your first one. Unless you’ve had numerous quality betas that gave detailed feedback (and are not people you know personally), you cannot possibly know if your MS is at the level it needs to be. Maybe get an editor to look over a few chapters to check there are no major craft issues.

I know how eager you might feel as your finger hovers over the ‘send’ button on a series of queries, but DON’T. Not unless you’ve had it thoroughly tested by other readers and writers. Save yourself the struggle and save the agents their time.**

Anyways, back to my experience.

Before I go into detail, I want to reveal my criteria for what counts as a ‘form’ rejection vs a ‘personalized’ one. There are no universal rules (reread paragraph 1 above), but generally, agents use set emails to reply to the vast numbers of the queries they receive. Some have tiered responses, with more positive or encouraging things the more they liked your query or sample. Some just have one basic rejection. I, PERSONALLY, define them as follows:

  • Form rejection: no details about the MS, concept, anything.
    • Examples: “This isn’t right for our list at this time.” or “I didn’t connect/love it enough.” or “It didn’t grab me as I hoped it would.”
  • Personalized rejection: specific detail about the MS, concept, characters, plot.
    • Examples: “Story started too quickly…” or “I love your writing and particularly love your characters.”
    • Not to be confused with “While there was much to admire…” or “You have an interesting concept,” both of which I count among the form responses (you might not, but I do– reread paragraph 1).

So, I did the naive and foolish ‘queried too early’ nonsense. I was the buffoon who thought my book might get picked because someone would see enough potential in it to help me make it better. BOO, PAST ME. YOU WERE A FOOL.

I got lots of form rejections. The rare one or two could have potentially had a snippet of personalization, but most were brief 1-2 liners.

Fast-forward one year and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve begun accumulating beta feedback (from ACTUAL STRANGERS– no, your mom and best friend don’t count, soz). I’ve combed my MS for things like tense inconsistencies, POV issues, passive voice, adding more rhythm and movement in my writing, NOT USING BEATS AS DIALOGUE TAGS. I could go on.

I do more queries (cause I’m a glutton for punishment).

The rejections come in, but they’re different. They’re longer, more detailed, and a lot more positive even if still forms (more lines of ‘we hope you consider us if you write anything new’ or ‘please do send us any other work you may have’). I get substantially more personalized feedback, some even with praise for aspects of the query or sample.

Fast-forward another six months.

By now, I’ve revamped the prose. I’ve switched up the opening a bit. I’ve MASTERED my blurb– not necessarily so that it’s the most ‘catchy’ or ‘exciting’ but in a way that accurately captures the essence of my plot and characters. I’m attracting more betas than I can track because everywhere I post this blurb asking for readers, I get them. I’m getting really positive feedback.

I do a very small number of queries, and I get more requests for partials and fulls than I do straight-up rejections. Most of the rejections are longer and tend to mention at least one thing the agent enjoyed. I still get a few form ones, but when I compare with my 2017 queries, the TONE feels different.

So, in short, if you’re getting lots of 1-2 line rejections, you may be where I was two years ago. Maybe stop firing out queries and seek more feedback. While there’s no universal or safe way to interpret things in this industry, you can usually find a balance. Good luck!

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