On rejection

In the past few years, I would venture that I’ve received at least a thousand rejection letters for clients. Rejection sucks. It’s frustrating. I spend quite a bit of time and energy working with clients on revising their manuscripts and proposals, and on crafting pitch letters to try to demonstrate to editors that these future books* are worthy of immediate attention. The overwhelming majority of the time, the end result is still a rejection. Or it’s a non-response. As is the case with some agents, some editors also have a “no response means no” policy**.

During the same period of time, I’ve had to send out nearly 20,000 rejection letters of my own. The comma’s in the right place. There are no extra zeroes. Twenty thousand.

We get a prodigious volume of queries over in agent land, and so we’re faced with a choice. Give up entirely on responding to work we’re not into, or send form rejections.

I really would like to be able to devote enough headspace to people to give personal responses to everything, to labor over my thoughts on how to mend what needs mending with a given work. Regrettably, it’s just not going to happen. Time is finite. I have my clients and their publishers, my coworkers, my fiancee, and two soon-to-be stepkids. I don’t get the luxury of mulling over everything I read at the length it probably deserves. The numbers don’t work. As much as I’d like to sometimes (and I really would), this desire to do justice to everything can’t be a priority when I have greater ones.

So that’s where the form rejection comes in.

Here’s mine:

Dear Author,

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to consider your query—thanks for sending it.

Unfortunately, the query didn’t appeal quite enough to my own tastes to inspire me to offer representation or further consideration of your project. I wish I had the time to respond to everyone with constructive criticism, but it would be overwhelming, hence this form response.

This business is highly subjective; many people whose work I haven’t connected with have gone on to critical and commercial success. So, keep after it.

I am grateful that you have afforded me this opportunity to find out about you and your project, and wish you the best of success with your current and future creative work.

All best wishes,
Eddie Schneider
VP, Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.

This letter didn’t start out with the phrasing it has now. It’s been refined over the years based on unsolicited feedback.

About that – querying an agent with your writing can be a painful process. A good many people who write really open their veins to tell their stories, and I’ve had some people who were less than thrilled that all this effort resulted in an impersonal rejection and who told me as much.

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to thank those of you who offered constructive feedback. So, thank you.

I’ve viewed these comments, which typically come in the form of people finding particular turns of phrase to be insensitive, as the canaries in the coal mine. For every one person who speaks up, there have probably been ten or twenty who suffered in silence.

If you get a form rejection, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Agent X hated your work or has it out for you or is a spiteful gatekeeper who doesn’t understand the mountain you had to climb to write your novel. And how could they respond to this thing that took months or years of often thankless effort with a “nope?”

Because I can’t realistically respond to everyone with the deliberation their work deserves, I’ve worked to develop a general response that’s sincere and hopefully humane. I’ve gotten enough thank you emails post-rejection to supply me with anecdotal evidence that I’m on the right track. I’m sure it will be revised a few more times in the coming years in unforeseen ways as well.

There are a few different reasons for why I ended up writing this post. The selfish one is that it was something I wanted to get off my chest. A better one is that I think it’s important to know that this process is challenging for everyone. It feels personal even when it’s not, and we all have to learn coping strategies. For some this isn’t a big deal, while for others it’s visceral. The general advice I’d have here is to go ahead and feel your feelings rather than suppress them or try to get over it quickly, but analyze them, and remember that they’re temporary.

Practically everyone gets rejected, and most of the time it happens a lot. It still happens after you publish. It still happens after you hit the New York Times bestseller list, and it still happens after you’ve had your work adapted for TV or film.

Keep in mind that rejection is rarely ever forever. Most commonly, it’s not for a given work at a given moment in time.

Keep going, as long as you can. And remember that if I rejected the first thing you queried me with, well, that’s not goodbye forever***.

* – Published or not, it’s a book, and it’s real, and it doesn’t need one of us to rubber stamp it to validate its existence. Some books don’t get what they deserve, but this doesn’t negate their existence.

** – Which I don’t love. And this underwrites my desire to respond to everyone, eventually.

*** – Exhibit A: Mike Grosso, whose success story you can read on QueryTracker. Mike queried me three or four times over the years before he sent me I AM DRUMS, which I’ve since sold twice: first to Egmont USA before its untimely demise, and more recently to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Clarion imprint – at auction!


Hello again, world!

So, I like the #MSWL hashtag. Most of the readers who find their way here probably know what it is already, but for the uninitiated, it stands for ManuScript WishList, and many agents and editors flex their creative muscles and dream up concepts for novels they wish they were working on. They range from the broadly general:

to the hyperspecific:

There’s even a website. (I’m verified, but as of this writing, haven’t put up a profile yet. Soon—I swear!)

This post, then, serves as an index of the things I’d like to see. It’s curated, and current, and the curious can bookmark it.

Maybe you can use it as a writing prompt, maybe it’s something you decide you want to share with your workshop/writer’s group. The #MSWL is definitely not the be all and end all of what I’m looking for, but it’s a different take, and I think it’ll be a useful one. Enjoy!

And if you feel like there’s something sorely missing in your reading life, then feel free to #MSWL it up on Twitter, or comment, or, you know, write the book . . .

I feel like everyone knows this about me, but I long for a great non-Western fantasy novel, for MG, for YA, or adult! #MSWL

I still have yet to get that YA novel about a girl group in Motown. . .

The bones of a query letter

It has been a couple years since I last posted on here, and while I ponder a lengthier, more self-indulgent post on all the major life changes I’ve undergone from then to now (the best of which is that I’m engaged to the amazing Carolina Valdez Miller), I thought I’d break the ice with something more appropriate to my readership (based on site traffic, I appear to have one).

So, here’s what I use when I put together a pitch letter of my own to send to a publisher (we agents write a fair number of these). I made a file with a skeleton so that I always have something to reference. I’ll go over differences between this and a query letter from an author to an agent below:

Skeleton of Pitch to Editor





Dear [lucky editor],

[Something unique about author], [TITLE] is a [genre] [mention comp titles, usually]

[Big hook][1-2 plot paragraphs]

[Author background paragraph]

[Closer, with another big hook]

[Call to arms]




Three things to remember:

1. Capture the tone of the book.

2. Have one or two catchy lines that don’t feel contrived.

3. Always Be Closing (no, really!) — The idea, though, isn’t so much a hard sell as it is that you should feel like you’re continually stoking the fire throughout the letter.

Seems simple, yeah? The devil is of course in the details. The hooks that are referenced in the brackets can’t be too hokey; the comparisons can’t be too obvious (it’s Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings!).

If you’re an author querying an agent (and, let’s face it, most people reading this either are now or will be at some point), there are a couple things that don’t fly:

  1. When it comes to self-description, it doesn’t work to be too adjectival. I may be able to talk to an editor about how the epic fantasy novel I’m submitting is a brilliant debut, something that could shake up the genre, but it doesn’t sit right to most agents to read a description like that from an author.
  2. If you are querying with an unpublished work of fiction, it’s best not to mention that it has been “professionally edited.” This raises a red flag for most, as we’re trying to find authors who can get a good book nearly there themselves.

I expect I’ll come in to revise and expand this post over time, so if you find the post useful, you may wish to bookmark it for future reference.

Some stats

Since opening to e-queries (LGT bio if you want to send me one of your own)  a little over a year ago (which is the last time I posted here!), I’ve been tracking what’s come into my query e-mail.

Here are some quick stats:

  • I’ve received and responded to 5,246 queries, 4,915 of which were e-mail, 331 of which were print (e-mail turned out to be wildly popular for us; my print queries plummeted, and quickly)
  • Of these 5,246 queries, I’ve requested 188 partials or fulls (3.584%)
  • I’ve received exactly 200 partials to date (some referrals & conference requests in there), rejecting 184 and requesting 16 full mss (8.000% of partial requests have gone on to be full requests)
  • I have requested 28 full mss or non-fiction proposals in total, offered representation 7 times, and signed 5 clients, for a .714 batting average
  • All told, I’ve signed 0.095% of what’s come in through the front door, addressed to me
  • Because my client list currently has more men than women, I tracked my requests by gender to try to ID and deal with any unconscious biases that might be coming up. 53% of my partial requests have gone out to female writers, 47% to male writers, so that’s a start; 2 of 5 new clients I’ve signed have been women (40%; both slush pile), but I think there’s work to be done here.

There are a couple other things these stats don’t address: Professional referrals, and the (very) occasional situation where I reach out to someone because I’m interested in them. I started tracking professional referrals this past August, and between current clients, other authors, editors, and agents, have had 12, from 12 different sources, in a month and a half. (I’ve also, for curiosity’s sake, started tracking authors who have fired their previous agent and are querying me — 9 since July, indicating there’s some turnover going on right now.)

So, it’s a great time to query me!

With that slightly frightening 0.095%, you might think it’s not, but I’m looking to aggressively expand into non-fiction, literary fiction, and middle grade, in addition to my current staples (YA and adult SF/F).

I’m going to try to sign any author whose work I really like (and have in most cases succeeded in doing so, though occasionally every agent loses a “beauty contest” in which lots of us vie for one writer), but I also have a burning desire to diversify my client list (balancing gender as much as I can, signing more non-American writers, GLBTQ writers, and writers of color) so that’s weighing in the back of my mind as I go through the slush pile as well.

It was a queer, sultry summer

… when I finally updated the site.

Being inside on the hottest day of the year, when publishers are certainly observing the summer Friday, has led to my finally doing a few updates.  The new header is one; I’ve also deleted the annoying category cloud, and provided links to client blogs.

And now for the piece of news with the most interest and of the most relevance to 99.9% of this blog’s readers; I have opened to e-mail queries at JABberwocky.

My e-mail address for query letters is queryeddie [at] awfulagent [dot] com.  Any unsolicited e-mail query sent to any other address will be deleted, unread.  Likewise, don’t send any attachments; any synopsis must be included below the cover letter in the body of your e-mail.

Now, why the change?  Two reasons.

The first is that, although I’m expecting we’ll get hit with a wave of material worse than what we’d see in print, we’re also finding that many people e-mail first, and send letters once they’ve finished e-mailing. If a query is good, we’re put at a competitive disadvantage, because other people get more time to read. The second is that we get fewer queries from authors who live outside the US.  This cuts us off from a good portion of the UK, South African and ANZ markets (we’ve always had many letters from Canada, though), among many others, and making it necessary for people to hunt down IRCs seemed foolish to me, after I thought about it.

So, enjoy! Let your writer friends know I’m now open to e-mail queries.

Narrative development

So, since there’s a light trickle of literary people to my blog, I’m going to type up what are the beginnings of some thinking I’ve been doing about narrative theory (using this term a bit loosely). And I’d like to know what you think.

In the thousands and thousands of pieces of writing I’ve read over the last couple years, a pattern has started to emerge, and while I haven’t approached these in anything resembling a scientific manner, I do think, based on the improperly gathered evidence, that there is a hierarchy of needs related to narratives, and that the more of these needs are met, the more successful a narrative will be.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve tentatively called it the CASE Hierarchy. You’ll see why after the jump.
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