How Querying Is Like Dating — And How To Deal
When I first started querying agents about my YA novel, my very good friend — and crit partner — Stephanie Feuer told me, “Get ready. This is gonna be worse than dating.” At the time, I didn’t believe her (I’m a 20something single woman who lives in Brooklyn… Can anything be more challenging than that?). However, after throwing myself into the querying game I’ve sincerely come to agree with her — with a slight edit.
Querying is a lot like dating — times 1,000: sometimes you get turned down off the bat (a form rejection), sometimes you get a second date (a request for a partial manuscript!), sometimes you get a third or a forth date (a request for a full!) and sometimes you go out for six months or so (R&R time!). No matter how far you get, however, if it doesn’t work out (marriage! a request for representation!), in the end, it’s all rejection. There will likely be tears and cookies and destruction of property involved.
When you’re dating, however, you can blame failure to launch solely on the other person (they’re obviously insane, still in love with their ex, a chronic man child who doesn’t pay taxes and keeps his money in a shoebox), but with querying, you always end up blaming yourself (I am a talentless hack who should just resign myself to a life of meeping futility and cat collecting). You know, until someone comes along and sweeps you off your feet and proves that all those other agents were blind fools.
I haven’t had the swept-off-my-feet moment quite yet, but I know tons of people who have — in various professions and artistic pursuits. So, in the midst of trudging through the thorny forest that is querying, I asked them for their best advice when it comes to dealing with rejection.
It turns out that everyone had quite a lot to say — from quippy tweets to massive parades of words. Read on if you, too, are currently a literary single lady — or gent.
— Shelley Watters (@Shelley_Watters) June 10, 2014
Rejection. There are websites devoted to literary rejections, an anthology in the works, even a Rejection Generator that emails you a rejection before you’ve actually sent anything off to an editor, based on the psychology “that after people experience pain they are less afraid of it in the future.” But misery in good company is still misery, and the writer’s rite of passage, enduring a series of rejections, can eat at your soul. No matter how many times you tell yourself the road to success is paved with rejection, sometimes it feels like all that’s ahead is more rejection.
So how do you deal with rejection?
Don’t give in.
Part of how to deal with rejection is not letting it be bigger than you. Don’t let it paralyze you. I worked with a woman who stopped dating — for several years — after her college boyfriend dumped her. Don’t be the writer equivalent of that woman. Keep submitting. It stings a little less each time. The query excel sheet for my first, now trunked novel could double as a master list of every agent in the universe. My writer skin got thicker with each batch I sent.
As much as agents want to find the next big thing, their main focus is existing clients. So any personalized feedback you get is a gift. If you’re hearing that your book is too slow, has too much back story, or anything else about craft, some restructuring and revision is in order.
Ditto if you’re not hearing back at all, or getting form responses.
Sometimes you’re rejected because what you’ve submitted isn’t there yet, or like my first one, may never be. Take a good hard look at your work. Ask some other writers what they think. Then revise again.
But when one response says your characters are unique and inviting and another says they’re not realistic, you’re probably up against personal taste. That’s a good moment to ask yourself who you’re writing for and how successful you think you’ve been. Hold on to that, and keep looking for someone who shares your vision.
Rejection will knock you down.
There’s that inevitable moment when you feel all the rejections you’ve ever experienced in life, not just from the agent who said you have too many characters, or that your plot lacks tension, but everything — the drummer who you saw for month until he dumped you because his girlfriend was returning from France, that perfect community moderator gig you interviewed for and never heard a word about, the college you didn’t get into, even not getting picked for the winning kickball team in grade school gym. There’s a day when it all congeals in a toxic blob and threatens to erode your soul.
It’s what you do in that dark moment that defines you as a writer.
After the pitch, rejection, revise, rejection cycle on (spoiler alert) my novel being published next week, I’d set it aside, fallow but not forgotten, contemplating an R & R while I started writing something new. Out of the blue a months-overdue response from an agent scorched my inbox with something I’d heard before — love the writing, but can’t sell it raises an issue too mature for young teens.
First I was pissed. The tweens I know deal with some deep stuff. I sincerely believed they’d get the book. But the gatekeeper was rejecting it.
I seized on the “can’t sell it.” I magnified it: Nothing I write will ever sell, I’ll never be a published novelist. I mixed in an unhealthy dose of the toxic soup of despair: I’ll never be fit enough, thin enough, good enough, smart enough. I walked around in a cloud of doom. Couldn’t write the WIP.
I couldn’t sleep, because why be well-rested if you’re not going to amount to anything (reality check: I already had a great day job, dozens of publishes short pieces, fabulous husband and kid). Rejection had knocked me down, and almost out. I trolled the Internet a lot, having envy-green moments when writer friends released new books, I read a lot of YA blogs, thinking I’d never be part of that world.
Good thing, that, because I read about a digital first publisher looking for material. I’d always pictured my book as an ebook. The glint of possibility was back, fueled by knowing what I believed was the right match for my book I pitched. They said send it. They loved it and we made a deal. I even got to pick the illustrator. Next week you can get a copy.
So how do you deal with writerly rejection? Ride it like a wave, adjusting as you go. When it knocks you down — and it will — take a moment, gather your strength, take stock of what you can do, where you want to go, seek the wave that’s right for you and ride it in.
— Jennifer M. Hartsock (@jenmhartsock) June 9, 2014
So an ex-boyfriend of mine had this saying that he didn’t burn bridges, he slept under them. Now, this is like the absolutely worst advice when it comes to exes, but it’s actually great advice when it comes to work. When someone or a job rejects us, our instinct is to grab the nearest shot of whiskey and book of matches and burn that connection to the ground. But, if you can pause and take the time to reflect before you leave a trail of ashes behind you, there is actually a lot that you can learn from being rejected.
It’s hard, but if you have the strength to ask about why you didn’t get the job or were fired there is a lot to learn. We think we learn from being praised because praise feels like momentum forward, but the truth is that constructive criticism will teach us more than praise ever will. When I haven’t gotten a job that I really wanted, I’ll often ask what was missing in my resume that made them decide not to hire me. This has allowed me to understand their “thought process” instead of just assuming it was because they were jerks. Sometimes I realize that the role wasn’t actually right for me or I realize that it was totally my dream job, but there were gaps in me resume that I need to fill.
Also, I’d encourage those being rejected to not get mad, but get even. And I don’t mean going on a hate-pouting rampage on Twitter or even in a bar with friends. Instead what I mean is that it’s important to remember the axiom that: The best revenge is a life well-lived. Anytime you face rejection, I think the best thing is that you use it as the force to propel you forward rather than allow it to get you down. Keep busy, build your resume, seek out people to create and innovate with and suddenly you’ll find yourself in such a good position that you won’t even remember that you were ever rejected. I know it’s easier said then done, but if you start creating things that you truly believe in you’ll find yourself getting the kind of work you always wanted anyways. I’m not talking about just applying to another role — though if you need the cash totally do that too — I’m talking about transforming yourself into a maker.
Finally, send a thank you card anyways. It’s literally the classiest thing you can do. Not only will you feel good about it years down the line when you are old and grey and sitting in a rocking chair pouring wisdom on your grandchildren or whatever, it will make them do a double-take regarding you. Also, sometimes it really wasn’t you at all, but it was timing and so you’ll be filed away for future consideration.
Last thought, I swear — but sometimes you just gotta shrug off rejection and remember that you are awesome.
— Rachel (@prncsspwr) June 9, 2014
My number one tip… don’t compare yourselves to others during the process. It’s really easy — especially if you’re an active author on social media — to watch other writers post updates about their books, deals and careers. The urge to compare your success rate with others is certainly there, and it’s a waste of energy. Spend less time mulling over what other people have vs. what you don’t, and spend more time writing and researching.
And if you must compare, be productive about it. Who is that author’s agent? What publishing house is the book coming out with? Do they write for any interesting outlets? Instead of comparing yourself, see what you can learn.
— Jeff Zentner (@jeffzentner) June 9, 2014
From a practical perspective, the number one thing I have to say about rejection is never to respond to it immediately. The fact is, most of the time, you shouldn’t be responding to it at all, but it can be nice to thank an agent who took the time to give you personalized critique. If you’re going to say anything negative, though, just don’t. Do not. It will never, ever do anything positive for you.
While you’re stepping back, consider this fact about rejection: It happens to literally everyone. The agent who just rejected you? Has probably been rejected him/herself by a would-have-been client who had multiple offers and went with someone else. Certainly (s)he’s had submissions rejected by editors. And in turn, those editors have lost subs to others. Rejection is part of publishing, and the fact is that everyone in the business can empathize. It’s a fact I find very worth remembering, especially when it feels like no one “gets it.”
Finally, one of the most important skills to develop as an author is learning from critique. You don’t have to accept every piece you’re given and revise to death based on every opinion, but you do have to take the time to understand why it’s being said about your work, even if you disagree with it. That’s just part of the learning process.
Sometimes, there are lessons you don’t realize at first are lessons. If you’re not getting requests for pages, that’s telling you the problem is your query. If you’re getting requests for fulls but not offers, that tells you the problem’s in your pages. If you read a personalized rejection that makes it clear the agent hasn’t read past page 12, that tells you your problem is in the first 12 pages. I remember getting particularly angry about the latter when I was very first querying, because it was clear to me the agent hadn’t read past page 50. It took me a while to realize that was an implicit critique of my pacing; I should’ve had more happening by the time she put it down. Not all critique is eloquently stated; sometimes you have to do a little more work as the person getting critted to figure out what’s behind out and how you can improve for the future.
The biggest thing about rejection is that it’s going to happen. You have to learn to take it gracefully, and you have to learn to get back up and keep going when you get knocked down. It’s the only way to move forward!
1. Acquire ice cream. 2. Eat feelings. RT @BrennaEhrlich: Do I have any YA author followers who would like to email about rejection advice?
— Eric Smith (@ericsmithrocks) June 9, 2014
My #1 best tip is going on Goodreads and reading terrible reviews of books I love. It’s incredibly petty, but it reminds me that people have no taste and I shouldn’t take what they say about my book personally.
My Advice — From One Still Searching
The person/job/agent who rejected you likely did you a favor. In the end, you want someone who wants you. Waiting to find that person/job/agent saves you from a future of hardships and misunderstandings. Keep looking. We’re all crazy enough to choose a career dedicated to daydreaming, so just go all-out and be the definition of crazy (do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results).