If you’re an author, you’re going to be rejected.
There. I said it. I started this post with this painstakingly crafted phrase because this is the cold, hard truth, and this is what you need to hear. If you don’t want to hear it, go ahead and skip this post and go back to the spiel about all of your dreams coming true.
I’m not going to ask if you’re serious about this, because if you’re reading this blog, you probably are. So you want to be an author. But do you want to survive?
Your book is your child. It is your heir—the blood of your blood. When someone sends you back a letter and says that it’s not good enough, not marketable enough, or simply not what they’re looking for, you’re going to be the one who takes the brunt of the punch. (Hopefully) you are indelibly attached to your masterwork, so when you start getting rejections (which you will), they are going to hurt.
No matter how many times you remind yourself that rejection is “nothing personal,” it always will be.
Your book is your creation; by definition, it’s personal.
I myself am a catastrophizer, so the first thoughts swirling through my mind upon receiving such news are as follows: I’m a squid-sucking failure. My writing sucks. I’m the poopiest poo of the world, and my book is never-ever-EVER going to sell. I should just take my vows and cast myself off into the corporate void.
Maybe you’re more practical. (I certainly hope you are.) Yes, rejection is a sucker punch to the ticker, but you must also keep in mind that rejections arrive for many different reasons:
- The book sucks. Okay. I’ll give you that one.
- The agent/publisher doesn’t have room for any more submissions.
- The agent/publisher doesn’t represent that specific genre.
- The market isn’t right.
- The timing isn’t right. (E.g., another book eerily similar just came out, and you need to let that wave quell before you launch your brilliant idea.)
- It just isn’t what the agent/publisher is looking for.
#6 is sure to fire up some indignancies. “Not what the agent is looking for?” you cry. “Forsooth, Hannah! How dare you, they, or anyone else suggest that my brilliance isn’t scintillatingly brilliant!”
All right, so I’ve offended you. That was not my intention; I only wanted to gently remind you that an agent or a publisher has every right to reject you and give you no reason at all.
Think of it like a Hallmark movie. You have the society girl—that spunky, charming, and probably redheaded heroine who grew up in a small town but made it to the big city. She’s got everything she ever wanted out of life: the right job, the right clothes, a cute canine companion, and a dapper lawyer-fiancée who dotes upon her every twitch. She goes home for Christmas, and suddenly the tall, swarthy ranch hand shows up.
You know what happens next.
Why are we cheering for the cowboy? Obviously, the corporate lawyer is the practical and sagacious choice. Yet here we all are, “aww”-ing and spilling popcorn into the sofa because this chick listens to her heart and runs away with Hottie McMuscles to be a pig farmer.
We don’t question Hallmark. Our Western society balks at the idea of arranged marriages and suckles on the notion that love is a wild card.
If we’re okay with letting Disney characters fall in love for themselves, why can’t we let agents/publishers do the same?
I kid you not, this was a rejection I received from an agent: “I liked it, but I didn’t fall in love with it like I hoped I would.”
Boom. Ouch. Crash, burn, and smolder.
At first, I was distraught. Yes, there were tears, chocolate, and ice cream, but looking back at the email, I simply flip my hair and shrug. She didn’t have to fall in love; she had every right not to. As much as I adore my book child, I can’t force anyone else to do the same. That would make me something of a villain, wouldn’t it?
Another thing to keep in mind is that it may not be your first book that gets published. This is the case for many authors, as was it the case for me. Patel was not my first or second, but my third written novel, and that was after a year of trying to revamp the first two.
We’ve already covered the gamut of incredible books that were rejected, but I’m more than happy to remind you of a few authors who were struggling with the exact same thing: Rowling, Poe, Toole, King, Dr. Seuss… The list goes on and on. In fact, there is an entire website dedicated solely to literary rejections:
I’ve said this once, and I’m going to say it again: The only way to fail in this game is to quit.
Can you imagine if any of these authors would have thrown in the towel? Said, “Yup, I think So-And-So is right. This book is never going to make it.” We wouldn’t have Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. The Shining. The Cat in the Hat!
It may take months. It may take years. Heck, for some authors, it’s decades before they’re signed or successful. That’s just the game, and that’s how every single author has to play it. I write this post not to discourage you, but to assure you that rejection is completely normal, you CAN survive it, and if you keep working past it, you WILL succeed.
Perhaps it’s timing, not talent, that’s keeping you from your dream agent. Perhaps time is what’s going to show you that your book is meant for nontraditional publishing. Perhaps time is merely a pinch of physical distance between your book and the New York Times Best Sellers List. No matter what your situation or aspirations, the best advice you’ll ever get comes from Galaxy Quest when Alan Rickman’s character famously says, “NEVER give up. NEVER surrender!”
Did a door close? Try a window. Window still locked? Order a pizza.
A book written by a 25-year-old author can be just as good as a book written by a 72-year-old author, and vice-versa. There is literally no time constraint on when you start your career—no rush at all.
So go! Query when you feel ready. Query a lot, or query a little. Revise, revamp, and resend as much as you want. All you have is time, my friend, and never forget that it’s the agents and the publishers who are looking for you.
With that much being said, make sure that you’re taking care of yourself. Publishing can be a grating process, and occasionally, it may behoove you to take a break from your efforts. That’s not giving up; that’s just healthy. You’re not losing anything by taking a bit of time or distance. Your baby will still be there when you return, right where you left him.
Of course, all the motivational prattle in the world will not sooth the aching agony of rejection. (Take it from someone who’s had a lot of rejection.) Par contre, I have compiled a list of things that I like to do to make myself feel better.
THINGS TO DO WHEN REJECTED
A NONCOMPREHENSIVE LIST BY H. KATES
- Go for an angry run.
- Lift angry weights.
- Go boxing angrily.
- Break down in tears.
- Lose my rat behind the kitchen sink.
- Cry some more.
- Ice cream.
- Wine-flavored ice cream.
- Binge childhood memories in the form of Spongebob Squarepants, reminding myself that even Pretty Patties were scorned by Mr. Krabs.
I’ve also threatened to burn my manuscript several times. Conflagration is hardly effective, but it can make you feel better. If you absolutely must burn your book, go ahead and do it. I would advise against such drastic actions, as they tend to be expensive, time-consuming, and a potential fire hazard.
They say that the best thing to do after getting knocked off a horse is to get right back on it, but I imagine that getting knocked off a horse is also rather painful and results in serious bruising. My advice? Wait a few days after receiving the rejection before you start again. Let the emotion drain and get back to the grind with steeled determination.
Chances are, your rejection letter isn’t going to be very personal. Agents receive hundreds of queries a day, so if it’s a “no,” it’s probably going to come in the form of an autogenerated form letter. Don’t be a prima donna about this. If you were an agent, you’d do the exact same thing.
However, if there is personalized feedback in the letter, you’d do well to take it into consideration. By all means, don’t go changing your entire book because one person said one thing, but an agent’s comments might be something that you take to your critique partner, your beta readers, or your writing group. “Hey,” you say to them, “Agent So-And-So made this suggestion. What do you think?”
Graciously reply to any personally addressed rejection letters. Thank the agent/publisher for their time and efforts. Who knows? You might cross paths with that person later in your career, and an ounce of kindness may be what sets you apart from the rest. Additionally, you should probably just go ahead and strive to be a decent person. If you are confused about the agent’s feedback, you can politely ask him for more. Don’t expect a response, but the inquiry can’t hurt.
A query is a living, breathing document. It will change hundreds of times before you send it out, and then it will change as you’re sending it. I found that the best strategy was to send my queries in bundles. That is, I would query a few dream agents, a few I would be happy with, and then a few who weren’t horribly enticing, but represented my genre. I would wait for responses, gauge the replies (Is it working? Is it not working? Am I getting nibbles? Consolidated feedback?), and then adjust my query as I felt was needed.
“But Hannah!” you cry. “If the query isn’t absolutely perfect, it’s going to tank! What if I run out of agents?”
Let me tell you something right here and right now: There are hundreds of agents. Literally, thousands. You will not run out of agents to query. Additionally, you can always requery agents, if you feel so inclined. I would wait three to six months to do that, and if the rejection came after a full read and a hard “no,” you’d better have a good explanation of how your book has changed and why it is worth more of their time.
You’re going to be rejected. That’s inevitable. However, whether or not you succeed is entirely up to you. Take rejection with grace and poise, then feel free to throw things and/or burn them behind closed doors. This is a savage career, and your heart will be broken. If you need time, take it. If you need space, step back. The sting of rejection is a cruel, burning dagger, but the pain should never be so great as to make you forget the joy of the craft.
 Yes, I keep all my rejections. So does Stephen King, for the record.