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Coping with Waiting and Rejection

Nearly three years ago, I received one of the most soul-crushing rejections I’ve ever received. It was from a super star agent–someone who reps best-sellers–and a month earlier she had requested a partial from me. What did this mortifying rejection say? My writing was rich and vivid, but despite the merits, she wasn’t pulled in enough to go further.

I know. Awful, right?

It was one of the kindest rejections I’ve ever received, and yet it crushed me far more than the one from the agent who told me my characters were flat and my premise wasn’t original enough.

For me, it was all about expectations. This was from my dream agent. I wanted so badly to to work with her. And when I had gotten the request, I had let my thoughts run wild. What if this was the one? What if that chance conversation with one of her clients–the conversation that had led to a referral–was a divine appointment? What if this was meant to be?

Obviously, it wasn’t meant to be, and about two months later I signed with a different agent. That started a whole new process of waiting and rejection: being on submission. You hear the stories about authors who go on submission and within a few weeks, their book is sold at auction for six figures. That’d be nice, but for most of us, being on submission is like querying, except worse. At least with querying, you can send out a new query when you get a rejection. Being on submission means you’re still subject to seemingly endless waiting and rejection, but you have even less control. And when you do get that publishing deal, you’re not even allowed to announce it right away–there’s even more waiting.

So if waiting and rejection are an inevitable part of almost every stage of the publishing of the publishing process, how can we keep ourselves sane? We’re writers. We like to be in control–of our characters, our plots, our words. How can we let go of control in a business that’s full of uncertainty?

Here are my hard-earned tips on handling rejections without being pulverized by them. And by hard-earned, I mean I’ve been there. I’m still there. Between querying agents and being on submission, I’ve amassed hundreds of rejections. I know how much they hurt.

  • Manage your expectations to begin with. This doesn’t mean you should be a pessimist and assume that you’ll never got an offer or rep or a publishing deal. If this is your dream, you need to chase it. But don’t set all your hopes on one specific agent or editor or publishing house. Let go of your desire to control everything. Do your research, obviously, but be open to venues that weren’t your original top choices.
  • When you get a rejection, allow yourself to grieve, but don’t wallow. It’s okay to cry. Drink a little wine. Eat some chocolate. But then get back up and keep going. Rejections don’t mean you’ll always get rejections.
  • Find your encouragers. These are the people in your life that you can go to and whine and complain to about the rejections, and they’ll commiserate with you and then tell you how wonderful your writing is and remind you to get back up and keep going. I find critique partners are the best for this because they’re writers too. They’ve gone through the rejection. And they wouldn’t be your critique partners if they didn’t love your writing, so they really mean it when they tell you you’re awesome.
  • Keep writing. For me, this is the hardest thing. It’s tempting to spend your time refreshing your inbox or Twitter-stalking agents and editors as if that will give you some clue as to whether they’ve read your submission. But that only sends your nerves into high gear during the wait and makes the rejections sting more. I’ve found if I’m focused on a new project, I barely notice the rejections. I’m too excited about the next book to be crushed.
  • Trust yourself and your abilities and enjoy the writing process. Okay, I said continuing on with something new is the hardest thing for me, but maybe this issue of trust is bigger–because it affects my ability to write. I have had the worst time trying to draft the book I’m currently working on. It’s going better now, but for a good six months, I could hardly write a thing. Part of it was due to external factors like a career change and job stress. But a whole lot of it was because of rejections trickling in. I’ve gotten to the point where the rejections don’t slam the breath from my chest and leave me sobbing on the floor. But, boy, do they wiggle into my brain and whisper doubt. If the last book isn’t getting picked up, will this one be any better? Is this first chapter good enough? Is the premise good enough? Am I good enough? Those doubts can be subtle, and they can be awful to get rid of. I finally had to decide that I was just going to have fun writing and not worry about being published. It was the only thing that could shut up the doubts. Does that mean I’m giving up on becoming published? Of course not. But I can’t focus on that when drafting. I need to remember why I loved writing to begin with: it brings me joy.

Wherever you’re at in your publishing journey, hold on. Rejections hurt, but the more you write, the better you’ll get at it. Use them to grow instead of letting them crush you.

 

Rejections, rejections, rejections… Not a rejection

In 2012, I received my first rejection from an agent. It came a day after I had sent the query for my 120,000 word epic fantasy novel, and I was crushed. The rejected manuscript was the first I had completed, and it had taken me over five years to write it. I had sent it to one beta reader, who had given me excellent feedback and lots of encouragement, and I was quite sure I had written the next breakout novel. I was going to defy the odds and quickly secure an agent on the first book I had written. A year, many edits, and 97 form rejections/no responses later, I finally gave up and self-published the book and its sequel. (A word of advice here. Don’t self-publish unless you have the time and money to invest in hiring a quality editor, a good cover artist, and marketing. Just don’t.) Looking back at those two books, which are no longer available, I’m dreadfully embarrassed that I ever let them out in public. Though I couldn’t see it at the time, there was a reason–many reasons–that the book never got so much as a personalized rejection.

Fast-forward to December, 2015. I had just finished my MFA in fiction writing. My thesis was a YA fantasy novel, and it had passed through the inspection of my mentor, who was a published author. This was going to be my big break. I sent out a handful of queries and got my first rejection–but it was personalized. I was thrilled. I just had to find the right agent.

But the rejections kept rolling in. I realized there were problems with my first chapters. I went to a writer’s workshop. I found a few critique partners. I revised. I sent out more queries–and I got my first full request. Cue internal screaming and certainty that I had found my agent. A few days later, I got another request. And more rejections. And another request. And then the requests turned into rejections. And more rejections. And more rejections. And every one of them said the same unhelpful sort of thing: “I just didn’t love it enough.”

In 2016, I entered Pitch Wars, hoping that either I would find a mentor to tell me what was wrong with my manuscript or (even better!) someone would tell me that there wasn’t anything wrong with it at all and maybe send it along to their agent.

But I didn’t get a single request. I was a complete failure. One of the mentors had tweeted that if you didn’t get any requests, it probably meant you weren’t ready to query; something was wrong with your manuscript. I was devastated. I questioned why I was writing. I thought about scrapping the book. Maybe even giving up altogether. My writing clearly wasn’t good enough. I was never going to find an agent and never going to be published.

The irony is, as I discovered a few days after the mentees were announced, none of the mentors had actually received my application because of a technical glitch. In the end, two of them gave me valuable feedback, but I’ll never know if one of them might have requested more if they had received it before they had made their decision. I had fallen into a morass of self-doubt for no reason at all.

I revised my first chapter based on the Pitch Wars feedback, and I sent the new version to the agent who had my manuscript at the time. I kept querying and getting a few requests–and loads of rejections–and, finally, I started writing a new manuscript. That November, I participated in Nanowrimo, and I rediscovered the joy of writing. I loved this new manuscript. It was better than the last one. It no longer mattered if the last one kept getting rejected.

And then, at the very end of November, the agent who had requested my manuscript in July responded. I stared at my email, dumbfounded. She wanted to know if she could call me to discuss representation. We talked a few days later, and she was wonderful. I still had several queries and full manuscripts out, so I gave the other agents two weeks to respond. They all passed because they didn’t have time to read it or because they didn’t quite love it enough, and I happily accepted the offer from Nicole Payne at Golden Wheat Literary. In total, I received 120 rejections/no responses on the manuscript. But I had one yes, and that’s what mattered.

The point of all of this… The competition in programs like WriteMentor or Pitch Wars or Query Kombat is stiff. If you don’t get in–or don’t even get requests–it really doesn’t mean anything. Being on the other side of it as a WriteMentor mentor has shown me how subjective it all is. I’ve received submissions that need a lot of work to be query ready–probably more than can be done in three months of mentorship. I’ve received other submissions that seem like they’re very nearly ready. I’ve received a handful that might actually be ready. Every single manuscript has so much potential. My final decision will be based entirely on my own personal taste and what I think I can give the most help to in the three months before the agent showcase. There are some amazing submissions that I won’t be requesting even though I really want to read them, simply because I know I won’t be a good mentor for the concept or the writing style or the genre. It doesn’t mean that these manuscripts aren’t query ready or nearly query ready. It’s all ridiculously subjective.

So don’t be discouraged. Keep writing. Keep improving. Keep querying. Maybe the manuscript you’re working on will be published. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be the next book, or the one after that. You’ll never know unless you keep going.

#WriteMentor Wishlist

I’m thrilled to be a mentor for #WriteMentor! I’m offering to work with one author on getting their YA manuscript submission ready. (I’m happy to help with a query letter too, but our primary focus will be multiple edits of the manuscript itself.) For more details on #WriteMentor, check out: https://www.stuartwhitewriting.com/mentoring.

I’ve got some information on what kind of manuscript I’m looking for on the #WriteMentor website, but here are a few more details:

Regardless of genre, the most important aspect to me is voice. This is something that’s very hard to “teach,” and it would be very difficult to rework voice on an entire manuscript in a few months. The voice can be lush and lyrical or ironic and humorous or just about anything else, as long as it’s fresh and interesting and draws me in.

As far as genre is concerned, I have the most experience with fantasy. I prefer contemporary settings or exotic and unique settings. If your novel feels like it fell out of a D&D campaign, I’m probably not the right mentor for it. I’d love to see fantasies or magical realism set in underrepresented nations or worlds based on underrepresented cultures. Of course, contemporary novels set in places such as these would interest me as well. All in all, if the voice captures me and it’s not traditional elves-and-dwarves fantasy, feel free to send it my way!

I’m a person of faith, so I’m not going to be a good mentor for any books that present any religion in a negative light. I’d love to see fiction that explores religious themes in an honest but positive way, as long as they’re not openly proselytizing or campy.  I’m okay with dark literature, as long as there’s some hope. If your manuscript has a completely depressing ending, I’m probably going to be too angry that you broke my heart to work with you… Seriously, though, I’m okay with bittersweet endings, but I like at least some degree of happiness at the end.

As far as the manuscript itself is concerned, it’s okay if there are some issues with pacing, plot, or characterization–that’s the point of mentoring! However, we only have about three months for editing, so we won’t have time to work on major issues in all of these areas. I’m hoping we’ll have time to work on these big picture issues in the first round of edits, and then move on to line edits. I geek out over playing with words, so this is the part that excites me the most.

I hope this gives you a good idea of what I’m looking for! If not, feel free to tweet me your questions (@JodiHerlick). I’ll be doing Q&A on Tuesday, May 1st from 8-9 (EDT) and on Thursday, May 3rd from 7-8 (EDT), but feel free to send me questions outside of those times as well.