Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Sting of Rejection

You develop a pretty thick skin doing this query-your-novel thing.  You have to. I've had rejections that have been particularly disappointing, but never one that devastated me.  This last one, though, has left me feeling battered.

For one thing, I let my guard down.  Here was an agent who, reading the first 100 pages, said I was a "fine writer" and that he was "really enjoying" my book.  Not just that.  After I'd sent him the rest, we got into a little colloquy -- had I sent the book to anyone else, any publishers, was this my first novel?  And more.  He was going to finish over the weekend.  All of which lent the impression that he was not just enjoying the ms., but enthusiastic about it.

I kept the cynical me locked in the closet.  I allowed myself to think that this time, just maybe, I had found someone who got it.  I read the book over the weekend, too, wanting to refresh myself on why he might have liked those first 100 pages.  I came away, again, thinking, This is a pretty good book.  Not great.  Not Pulitzer material.  But pretty darn good.

Then, the reply.  He liked my writing style a great deal.  My characters are sympathetic and interesting.  But he thought the story's narrative lost pace and power as the book progressed.  (Odd, because everyone else, myself included, thinks it starts off slow, picks up steam as it goes along, then rockets to the end.)  Maybe I could have survived that.

Then came this.  He might be wrong, but he was fairly sure others will feel similarly.

I have never had an agent say that to me.  They've said they liked it but didn't think they could sell it in today's market.  They've said it just didn't do it for them.  And all manner of other things.

But no one has ever said, in essence, that I shouldn't bother with anyone else, that my novel is a failure.

It felt like a sledgehammer to the sternum.  What do I make of this?  It's not like the guy is some fly-by-night nobody: one of the reasons I allowed myself to get excited was because he's someone who's been around a long time, has an estimable track record, knows his stuff.  Is he the only one who has dared to tell me the truth?  Have all my friends who've told me how much they liked it, despite my entreaties to be brutally honest, been lying to me?  (Not all of them were uncritical.  One of my friends said he thought my protagonist was "stupid.")  Have those agents who read the full, said they liked it but didn't feel it was saleable, just been feeding me a line?  Why didn't they just give me a pro-forma "not for me" rejection?


I haven't been this depressed since a certain woman, the [very bad word], broke my heart in 1983.  Before many of you were born.  And that's part of it.  I can't just devote another 10 or 15 years to honing my craft.  It won't be all that long before I can start claiming senior discounts at the movies.

Not that this changes my plans.  I'm just going to run out the string: one full, two partials out.  Then send the thing off to independent publishers.  Then Kindle it, I suppose.  Try to write another book, if I can ever find the time, which I can't, because I have to spend every waking moment trying to earn enough to pay the bills.

But really: fairly sure others will feel similarly.



  1. Not to lemonade you, but I seem to recall that the woman who broke your heart also had the grace to die and leave you a substantial accidental inheritance, simply because she never changed her will. May this heartbreak be followed by a similar irony.

    And I remember because I stole that part of your autobiography as a starting point for a never finished screenplay. Unlike me, you did it. You finished a book, a novel - your second, unless I missed another one in there. Faith and hard work.

  2. Alright, here's the thing. I don't care how experienced or accomplished this agent is. Unless he is a mind reader and knows the taste, feelings and thoughts of everyone in the publishing business he is ridiculous to say "fairly sure others will feel similarly."

    But it is why, for your own health as a writer you have to move on to another book which doesn't mean abandoning this one.
    If you can't get an agent for this book at this time there are mystery publishers that take manuscripts directly.
    Here is a page with a list and links. Some on the list take direct submissions.


    The best action with that kind of rejection is to take action on behalf of your book and yourself.


  3. Different woman, Paul. The one who died was not a [very bad word].

  4. I agree with Ariel. Knowledgeable and experienced people - in any field - can be and frequently are wrong. And I have to say that it's hard for me to believe that everyone else who looked at your manuscript (including all those other agents) were somehow just protecting your feelings. And if you accept that, then you accept the fallibility of this agent's view about how others will feel, which means his other views about the book may also be wrong.

    I bet this agent thought "fairly sure others will feel similarly" was a throw-away phrase, but he shouldn't have said it either way.

  5. You're welcome Travener.
    You've had a lot of requests which means clearly not only can you write but you've written something agents want to read. But you have to try not to listen to what they say when it's not constructive. And that line was not constructive
    at all!

  6. I've been trying to come with something to say that might cheer you up, but I can't. Fact is, I think every writer gets that one particular rejection that hurts like hell at some point. Invariably it follows a period of hopefulness. As it did for you.

    One of two things is going to happen now: on some level, you're going to agree with his assessment and move on OR you're going to, deep down in your soul, think BITE ME. I've taken both routes myself. Put something aside because I knew, and ultimately agreed, with an agent's evaluation that a ms wasn't working. On another project, I thought, "Yeah, shows what you know" and went on to get an agent.

    Just don't hand over the keys to your happiness to the publishing industry. Cuz it will eff you over a thousand times. Take a break. Re-group. Get back on that effing horse when you're ready.

  7. I've had a similar experience, Travener. And it IS heartbreaking. But.... it could also be heartening.

    I'd let it lie a while, think about the issue (which sounds to me like plotting/pacing) and in time, the feedback might point you in a direction for revision.

    Perhaps you can graph your novel or outline it looking at tension and plot twists, consider how you might combine scenes or cut chapters, and all that and try to figure out what the issue was (for this agent anyway)

    Perhaps the pacing was the issue for the others as well and they just sent out the generic no thanks to avoid complications.

    If not, and after some time and reflection, you find that this agent is dead wrong, keep on keeping on!

  8. Keep writing, Trav. While it's possible that newest agent is wrong with the line about other agents feeling similarly, I think one has to consider that - by the same token - other agents throw-away lines about the novel finding a home somewhere else may be equally wrong.

    We all know of well-respected authors who have trunk novels they were unable to get published. What makes them stand out from the authors who never made it is that they kept writing and kept submitting. Have you asked yourself what you'll do if Agent 415 finds a publisher, signs a contract with you and it unfortunatly only makes a $10k advance and never sells through on the royalties? The key to this business isn't just great product, it's more product - more of your newest work selling to get 'brand' loyalty which sells more of your older work. If the franchise-slush-ghost-writers can knock out a complete novel in a month, then I know lesser mortals like you and I can write another.

    The ref hasn't finished counting yet: pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go write!

  9. Travener, wow, I'm sorry it turned out this way. Do yourself a favor-- stop parsing the meaning of rejection comments. They'll drive you crazy. Also, put that manuscript aside for at least many many months.

    You're never too old to hone your craft. Consider community workshops or a summer writing conference. Don't be afraid!

    About 8 years ago, I wrote a novel that went nowhere. It was heartbreaking, very much like romantic disappointment. I wasted three years revising the sucker but I knew it my heart it would never go anywhere. After that, I took as many writing courses as I could find, wherever I could find them. I went to summer conferences and pursued an MFA. I'm in my mid-40s right now, with 3 young children. I'm not wealthy. And maybe I'll never win that Pulitzer that, 25 years ago, I felt destined to win. But my writing is better and, because like you & a lot of others here, I prioritize my writing life, my life is happier because of it.

    An MFA is definitely NOT for everyone. I get that. But, while you're hatching the next novel we all know you have in you, there are many other ways you can hone your craft and work out ways to sustain narrative momentum. Don't give up!

    Don't dwell on the reasons you think you may never succeed (too old, not enough money, children that require time & financial commitments).

    There's a million reasons why NONE of us will ever succeed-- your job as a writer is to come up with the ONE reason that you will succeed. Forward project what is possible for you this summer, next fall, two years from now etc.

  10. There are writers strike fast and disappear. It's a career that takes a strong stomach and a thick skin. It's an art form shaped by commerce which makes it tough.
    I believe workshops can be very useful, one teacher, Mary Buckham, comes to mind.
    But there is one way to hone your craft and that is WRITE WRITE WRITE.
    It's why you always have to start a new book when the finished book is out on submission.
    Always have a second, third and fourth act to follow.
    Otherwise you invest every emotion, hope and dream in one book and it can break your heart.
    Keep writing.


  11. OK. To be blunt. Sounds to me like your book isn't delivering what agents are interested in the query...might help to have someone read your book and be brutally honest. I mean brutal. As writers, we sometimes like to overlook our weaknesses due to pride...it may be the only way we manage staying sane but I don't think it makes us progressive writers or successful people. Usually, the weaknesses others find are things we already knew...