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!

#MSWL

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. . .

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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