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How to Get Rejected

June 6, 2008

Rejection comes in so many shapes and forms, and is by far the most common response to a query letter or journal submission.  That’s an unavoidable fact of the biz – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.  On the contrary, take pride in those rejection letters, collect them and display them as you would any trophy, medal, or award because the fact is, those letters represent an accomplishment.  Let Mom put them on the refrigerator; you actually had the drive and the guts to mail your work to another human being, and you lost nothing but a few dollars worth of postage trying.

The more letters you collect, the better you’ll get at discerning the hopeful from a form response.  Any hand-written note is a plus – the editor or agent thought you were worth a personal reply, go you!

The key here is knowing your audience.  There’s a surprising difference between a query letter for an agent and a manuscript cover letter for a submission to a literary journal – and while there are books upon books for the former (all with conflicting advice, how kind), no one seems to think it worth explaining the latter.

I’ve queried five agents regarding my young adult novel, and sent three of my stories to various journals for publication.  This is part one of how I did it:


1) I bought a copy of Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents.  The Writer’s Market is a bit more of a general overview, and focuses on publishers and magazines.  Everyone I’ve spoken to has recommended getting an agent first.  Hardly anyone makes it out of the editor’s slush pile.

The only drawback to these books is that they’re an investment and the company makes new ones every year – usually without many changes, just enough that you feel your copy may be outdated.  I’m sure it’s a marketing ploy.  Don’t worry too much about buying the current edition – that’s where the internet comes in.

2) I read each page, paying careful attention to the agents who represented young adult novels – not as many as you might think given the teen bookshelf at Barnes and Noble.  This step is important as I’ve been told that there’s nothing worse than querying an agent who has specifically detests your particular genre.  You’re only wasting your time and theirs.  The agents are listed by agency first – look within that agency to see if there is a specific person who handles your genre, and then address the letter to that person.  Avoid addressing it to the top dog; that person doesn’t have the time to waste on you, and people lower on the totem pole are much more approachable.

3) I picked the first five from my sub-list and drafted my query letter.  As far as queries go, simultaneous submissions are fine.  On the chance, however, that you find an agent while there are still query letters floating out in the void, make sure you contact the agents you haven’t heard from and let them know.  

Here’s where my mistake will hopefully help someone else: in my haste and eagerness to have someone tell me how brilliant I was, I didn’t bother to do my research.  After you find the agents/editors you plan to query, google their names or the name of the agency.  This is a good way to find out if the authors they represent are your kind of people, if you have the current address, or even if the agent in question is still in business.  

By getting an idea of the agent’s clientele, you can find out if your book will match.  No matter how good the story is, if it’s not in the agent’s milieu, they won’t be able to help.  I had a very nice rejection letter that said while she liked my story, she didn’t think she was the right person to market it.  

One thing I think young writers in particular overlook is that we are the ones choosing an agent.  Yes, we desperately want to be chosen so our book will get published, but the fact is, the agent only makes the proposal of a partnership – it’s the author who makes the decision to accept.  Make sure that the agents you query are the people you actually could see yourself working with should you be lucky enough to land one.

4) The query letter packet.  Here’s where that guide to literary agents comes in handy.  Different agents have different specifications, though the default setting seems to be the letter, a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), and the first 20 pages of your manuscript, or the first few chapters.  My first chapter is 20 pages long, so that’s what I sent in.  The first three chapters would be about 50 pages, and that’s just a waste of paper.  No one’s going to read that far no matter how compelling the story – the agent will know in the first few pages if she’s interested or not.  

Make sure the pages are numbered, put your name in the header, and don’t staple.  

Some agents want a synopsis of the book – this is different than the blurb you’ll put in the query letter.  The synopsis is a one page summary of the plot.  If you don’t have a synopsis drafted, it’s a good idea to write one.  At some point in this process, you’re going to have to tell someone how the story ends.  I know, I know, there’s an instinct to keep that fantastic, amazing ending to yourself.  Spoiler Alert!  The agent is not the person you want to keep in suspense.  This person isn’t reading your book for the pleasure of it, she’s reading it to see if she can sell it.  Don’t hold back.

However, the query letter is not the place to tell all.  In the query letter, you want to put a blurb – a paragraph or two that will hook the person reading into wanting to see more.  For example:

When thirteen year old Kate Kincaid is sent to live with her estranged relatives after her parents are killed in a freak donkey-pulled vegetable cart accident, she expects her life to continue as normally as possible.  She does not expect to find that her aunt tames lions, her uncle is in espionage, and her grandmother is a real witch.  Things only get worse for Kate when she ‘befriends’ the kids next door – the infamous Porter children.  When her new best friend Travis tumbles through a glowing orange portal contained in a cardboard box in the Kincaid’s attic, it is up to Kate and Travis’s siblings – Drew, Marty, and Eddie – to enter a realm of fairytale characters and rescue him before he is beheaded for trespassing.  Fires, giants, love-sick princes, and blonde hair are just a few of the obstacles Kate must overcome to save a boy she barely knows and a kingdom that wants her dead from a dangerously good-looking throne usurper. 

That blurb should come after you introduce the name and approximate word count of your manuscript.  After the blurb is the fun part: bragging.  Don’t bother with awards unrelated to writing unless you were president of Botswana for three years, or something equally as fantastic.  Keep it simple, but highlight anything about you that is unique, and be sure to mention any publications anywhere, even if it’s in the Temple Beth Israel newsletter.  Name dropping is always good, but only if the names you’re dropping carry any weight in the literary world.

Then I put all that together into a manila envelope (not forgetting the SASE), printed out mailing labels from my computer (they look professional and saves the mailman the trouble of having to decipher tricky handwriting), and took it to a Mailboxes Etc. or equivalent. I recommend having someone else handle the postage – you pay only exactly what you need to, and there’s no chance of being stuck with embarrassing My Little Pony stamps.  

Professionalism is key.  As a young writer, you don’t want to give anyone the idea that you are any less capable than someone twice your age.  You never know what will turn someone off – it could be as simple as presentation.  During an acting exercise in class, I once told a fellow actor that I wouldn’t have hired him for the faux-commercial because he didn’t make eye contact with me.  The weirdest things make people dislike you.

Then comes the hard part: the waiting.  There will be a lot of it.  Try not to be idle; prepare more packets to go when you get the first few back.  It will be months before those form letters arrive in the mail, but just keep writing in the mean time.  By the time I heard back from the first two agents I queried, I’d given my novel a major overhaul, and was actually relieved to be rejected.  You can’t go wrong trying to improve your work while you wait.


Quote of the Day: 

Guide to Literary Agents: When you are taking submissions, you actively seek humor. What sets a successful humor book proposal apart?

GP: Two things:

  1. A fresh ‘n crispy Benjamin paper-clipped discreetly to the second page of the proposal.
  2. Let’s change the question from “successful” to “great,” because success is a weird thing. People forget not all humor is nonfiction, so I review just as many manuscripts as proposals (and wish fiction was more salable). Like “shows about nothing,” humor written purely for entertainment is fine as long as it’s damn funny. God knows how many hilarious yet hollow and gimmicky books crowd my shelves at home. But I’m such a sucker for humor with substance, with some weight. Instead of raunchy fratire and chick-lit and 69 Ways to ________ (just fill in the blank with the dumbest thing possible), I look for Buckley novels—comedy with purpose—to get me going. How could a comedic writer not itch to be a social satirist during times of such corruption, such calamity (times of splendor if you’re a psychotic optimist)? – Greg Parasmo, Linn Prentis Agency

Link of the Day: Agent Query – “the largest, most current searchable database of literary agents on the web—a treasure trove of reputable, established literary agents seeking writers just like you. And it’s free (not because there’s a catch, but simply because not enough things in this world are free).”  Aw, doesn’t that sound nice?

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