I sat down today to work on my notes for the Fiction Masterclass series I’m taking in a week’s time. My brief is to teach the ‘class’ how to write a great synopsis and query letter, how to ensure your work lands on the desks of the best agents and how to make you (and your work) irresistible to agents and publishers alike. But I found myself thinking instead of how to get the writers’ heads in the best possible space and prepared for the rejections that might just come their way.
There is a ‘tick list’ that all writers should know by now – write the first draft, write a killer proposal and a great query letter and send it out to a dozen agents. In theory this results in at least one agent offering you representation but unless you are extremely lucky, the reality is very different.
Without being too woo-woo, writers need to learn how to mentally prepare themselves for the knock-backs and ‘no’s’. It’s inevitable that even the best writers will face a few rejections.
Stephenie Meyer sent 15 query letters about her teenage-vampire saga. She got nearly 10 rejection letters; one even arrived after she signed with an agent and received a three-book deal from Little, Brown. Harry Potter was submitted to 12 publishers (by an agent), all of whom rejected it. A year later, Bloomsbury published it in the U.K. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help sold more than a million hardcover copies. It was rejected by nearly 50 literary agents. These are all bestsellers – all bestsellers which have been rejected more than once, more than 10 times.
Getting an agent or publisher is a bit like the dating game – it’s all about timing and being in the right place at the right time – like dating, you wouldn’t want to go out with everyone you meet, and in publishing, not every publisher or agent will suit your book (or you).
You need to start seeing rejections simply as bad matches for your writing (and you) rather than failures of your writing. If you do, you will start to learn from the responses and treat them as a constructive criticism. I’m an agent in my day job and I have a very small stable of writers so I have to politely say ‘no’ to a lot of writers. If they ask, I always tell them why I’ve said ‘no’ and if they ask for advice, I will always give it to them. I will also give them a few names to go to. So they turn a rejection around and the silver lining becomes a clutch of names, some advice and some constructive criticism – which can be taken or freely ignored at their will.
Have you ever thought to thank an agent for their time when they reject your work – they’ve read your book – taken time out of their daily work to read your book (this can take four/five hours) and then taken the time to write to you. Thank them and ask them for some advice – some recommendations then next time you go to an agent you will be able to say, Big Cheese Agent told me to send my work to you – tah-dah! Instant steps up the ladder on the priority list.
Submitting your work to agents is a bit like the initiation process in publishing – it will be the first time you’ve had to take a big breath and show your book to the outside world. Many writers will fall at this first hurdle – they will get five or so rejections and then put their book away into the bottom drawer. I wish I could give them all a big Angel-Prod at this point and tell them its just a few ‘no’s’ – get your big boots on and get out there again. Those rejections might have saved you from being represented by an agent with too many clients, an agent who wouldn’t have had enough time for you, an agent who wouldn’t have felt as passionately about your work, as you do, an agent who just wouldn’t have championed your writing as they should have done…..I could go on but you get the point. Some agents just won’t be right for you and your work.
Sometimes, you have to listen hard to what is written between the lines of rejection letters – the words ‘this isn’t working’ is different to ‘this doesn’t work for me’. There are times when you have to consider whether or not you should continue submitting your work – this is down to you to decide but it may be that your first work should be put in that bottom drawer and you should begin writing the next one. Sometimes, writers should use the first book to learn the craft of writing and then it’s only when they complete the second book that they have produced a publishable work. It’s a tough call and if you are unsure, get some advice on this.
I meet a lot of writers through the London Writers’ Club and via the agency who have all been really good writers but just not right for me. If I don’t hand on heart really love someone’s work, I can’t sell it. I’m a seller and a dealer but only in things that I love. Many unpublished writers believe that their work should appeal to everyone – all agents, all readers – but they need to realise this is just not the case. Every writer has an audience and it’s a specific audience so it’s very likely that it will take some time – and patience – for your book to reach the right agent.
I once found one of my rejection letters online – frightening especially as I’d written it over ten years ago – but why the author had kept the letter, I’m not sure. Read the letters and then file them away somewhere dark. Do not keep returning to them. Take whatever gems you can from them and then move on. The next submission might just turn into a happy ending.