QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Guest Blogger: Jim Warner-Rejection Blues: Part 2

Part II: Major Variations

In Part I, we talked about the pains of the Rejection Blues. Maybe you’re contemplating giving up. Maybe you’re angry and thinking about doing something really stupid, like flaming agents and the publishing world on your website. But these are negative responses, the wrong notes on the blues scale. You need to get back on key. Here are some constructive ideas.

• How Did You Get Here? I can tell you, I know it wasn’t easy. But you’re a writer. You wouldn’t do this if you thought it was easy. You put in a lot of
work just to get to the query phase on a project. If you’ve written a novel, you’ve learned the discipline it requires to write regularly, to finish what you’ve started. You’ve had to face up to your weaknesses and turn your strengths into sparkling prose. You’ve done a lot to get this far. Don’t forget that.

• Keep Learning. I completed two novels before I even tried to sell the third. It was a spectacular failure with the agents. I didn’t even try to sell the fourth. The fifth, which I’ve only been shopping around for three months, has netted two requests for a partial and one for a full. All ultimately became rejections. But this fifth novel is already doing better than that the third effort, and I’ve only just started the process. I must have learned something during those past projects. I know I’m improving.

• Keep Writing. If you want to be a commercially viable author, you must admit to yourself that writing is a craft, not an Art. You must practice. I’m a hobby musician, but I don’t play the piano enough. My performance suffers as a result. Writing is just like music. You must practice to learn how to do it well, and you must keep practicing.

• Don’t Think Like an Artist. If you think your work is Art, you’ll have a tendency to think your writing works at too high a level to be the merciless editor you need to be. Don’t do this to yourself. Your work can always be better.

Don’t believe me? Just pick up any book by your favorite writer. They write much better than you do, right? Put on your editing cap and take a close look at their prose. Read backwards if you have to. Are there things you would have changed about their language? Did they use too many of the same words in a passage? Did they use too many commas? Not enough? You’ll find something. And you always will. That author may be better than you, they may always be better than you, but they aren’t perfect either. They work on their craft, just like you must. Don’t become one of those writers that thinks that they have written the perfect book. There’s no such thing, and you’ll destroy your career before it even gets past the fourth measure.

• Use the Blues. I know whenever I get my hopes up on a partial or full, only to get a rejection, the next time I sit down to work I’m hypercritical. Use this heightened editorial eye. Hone your prose with that sense of inadequacy. Not only will it improve whatever you are working on, you’ll regain that sense of lost control. Use a setback as a tool to make your craft better.

• Look at Your Submission Paperwork. You’ve probably had at least a few days since you sent out that particular query. Look at it closely. Was it the best you could do? Are there things you don’t like about it? Did you jump the gun and send something that wasn’t polished?

• Querying Is A Lot Of Work. I seem to have figured something out, because agents are reading my stuff. So let me tell you a little secret: I worked on that awful query letter for more than two weeks. I wrote it, I wrote synopses in three different lengths, and I even wrote a one page summary. While the outlines, synopsis and summary essentially stay the same from agent to agent, that query letter is only a template for what I actually send. Every agent wants different things. When I do my homework on an agent, they usually tell me what they want. And every agent has different clients, different tastes. So I target my query letters. Each time I send one, I spend some time on the query letter again. It changes, grows, evolves. I use any feedback I receive as a lens to magnify any strengths and locate any weaknesses. In one instance, I discovered I used the word ‘case’ three times in a paragraph. I couldn’t believe I missed something that simple, but I had. Even my beloved beta readers (who are pretty good), missed it. But I shouldn’t have. It was a rookie mistake. The latest query letters do not contain it. Interestingly enough, I got a request for a partial with three ‘cases’ in that one paragraph. The agent missed it too, and she’s a good one. But don’t count on luck. That letter should have been better.

A rejection is a chance to go back to that query letter and do it again. And you work on it until you do it right. You are going to make mistakes. Every writer does, even the pros. Each rejection gives you another chance to rectify them.

• Don’t Take It Personally. My last semester of college, I took a writing class. It was taught by Paul Cook at Arizona State, and I soaked it up. The class was part workshop, so we read each others’ work and critiqued it. I’ll admit I’m a pretty hard critic, and I made a couple of people upset. But I wasn’t criticizing them. I was criticizing their writing. I didn’t mean it personally, and in fact I really liked those I was most critical of. I read their work more closely than those I didn’t know as well. This nugget applies to rejection as well as criticism. There’s a reason why someone says or does something. You may not agree with it, but they have a reason. And you know what? I learned more from the criticism than I did from the comments like, “I loved it! Send it to Analog!” Don’t take rejection personal. It may boil down to personal preference. Learn to love criticism. Use it like the blues.

• Is Something Working? Have you had a query turn into a request for a partial or full? Congratulations. That’s success. You got someone that doesn’t know you to read your manuscript. It’s like they picked up your book, read the back, and opened it up. That’s more than a lot of published books manage.

I know some of you are skeptical about this. So go out and try it yourself. Go to your local bookstore, preferably one with a coffee shop, and drink a latte. Watch people browse. How many people pick up a book, look at the cover or the jacket blurb, and put it back? That’s the reader’s equivalent of rejecting a query. If they pick up the book and actually open it up, they’ve done something similar to an agent requesting a submission. If you sit in the right place, you may actually see the title and author of the books they’ve passed on. This is pretty illuminating about people and their reading tastes. Everyone gets put back by someone. And I mean everyone. Even J. K. Rowling and Stephen King get put back on the shelves. Hell, I haven’t read King in years. I don’t even pick up his books up anymore. But he does okay without me.

So if you’ve got a nibble or a bite from an agent, but didn’t land him or her, just realize that you get picked up in the metaphorical bookstore and your book got opened. They just didn’t take you to the counter and buy you. But you’re moving in the right direction.

The Coda

There a lot more ways to deal with the rejection blues than I listed here. If you’ve got the blues, and we all do at some point, just remember to be constructive and positive. Yes, it hurts. It’s disappointing, especially when you get a partial or full rejected by that agency you really wanted. But giving up isn’t going to get your name on a book. Eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s might make you feel better for a little while, but it doesn’t expand your writing career, only your waistline.

You’re already sitting in front of your computer. Bring up the word processor and get to work. One of these days, you’ll find the right combination of craft, project and agent to land you a contract with a publisher. In the meantime, you’ve got to learn to play all the scales.

Even the blues.

* * *

Jim Warner turned to writing fiction after he discovered that there were no jobs available for an intergalactic spice smuggler. He's sold everything from liquor to luggage, worked in academic and public libraries, and has composed over a hundred pieces of music. In college, he majored in American history and anthropology. He has completed six novels, including four urban fantasies, a horror piece set in Dark Age Paris, and a science fiction/mystery thriller.

Part 1 of Jim's Rejection Blues was posted yesterday. If you didn't get a chance to read it, scroll down.

Thanks again, Jim, for sharing your time and talent with us.


Anne Gallagher said...

Yes, thank you Jim for your posts. I have to keep remembering this business is subjective and not everyone will love my work.

Martina Boone said...

Good advice, Jim. Love this: "Hone your prose with that sense of inadequacy. Not only will it improve whatever you are working on, you’ll regain that sense of lost control. Use a setback as a tool to make your craft better."

Wonderful advice!


Melissa Sarno said...

What a great post! There are a lot of good reminders in here and this is a very motivational message! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Excellent posts, Jim. And they couldn't have come at a better time for me. Thank you.

Jen J. Danna said...

Thank you for an excellent follow-up to yesterday's post. I very much liked your bookstore analogy; that's a great way of looking at it.

Thanks for sharing your insight and personal experiences with us.

Pat Brown said...

Great blog and I love your ideas on how to make rejection work. I have 11 novels in print, but I'm still working on going to the next step and getting an agent, but I agree with your comments that you have to keep writing and improving. I hope each book I write is better than the last. I'm always open to change.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic stuff here. I love how you describe a reader reading the back of the book and putting it back as a rejection from an agent. Then opening the book a request for a partial and so on.

New way to look at things, indeed.

Great post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great second part, thank you. How true about those readers reading the back blurbs, I do exactly that, and if it doesn't interest me, that book gets put back, no matter who wrote it.

Stina said...

Thanks, Jim, for the great post.

Yeah, apparently King's done well without me, too. ;)

Alli Sinclair said...


Thank you for these wonderful and inspiring words. These posts go into my file for when the blues come a knockin'. Thank you!


Theresa Milstein said...

You've shamed me. I've looked back at queries and gasped at errors when I thought they were sparkling. And when I read Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I felt I had no business writing at all. It's a process. We have to keep at it to get better.

Great post!

Tahlia said...

I've read a lot of posts about rejection ( written a couple myself) and this is one of the best. You give excellent advice.

I thought that you and your readers light also like this little bit of balancing humor about the topic.


Claude Forthomme said...

Excellent advice! I fully agree with everything you said and it's fundamental to realize we can always improve...and we can't improve if we give up!

One little thing: to fight the blues, it's essential to put DISTANCE between those darned rejections and yourself. It's a matter of safeguarding one's sanity and peace of mind. For me, the way it works best is to IMMERSE myself in my WIP.I'm off into my novel, walking around with my MC and all the other people around him/her, and when the rejection comes, I can look upon it with a certain equanimity...

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great advice Jim. Sometimes hard to follow, but good and true if you aren't going to give up. I'm so impressed you've written 5 books.