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How Rejections Can Help You
Written by
Brooke Warner
February 2013
Written by
Brooke Warner
February 2013

Today I sat in on the agent panel at the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference with agents April Eberhardt, Penny Nelson, Andy Ross, and Jeff Kleinman. Agent panels are always popular at writers’ conferences, and for obvious reasons. It’s a dream come true to be represented by an agent, even though being offered representation by an agent is only a first baby step for most writers on their road to publication.

Like editors, agents spend a lot of time rejecting writers, and to their credit, they addressed this right away. The very first thing agent Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary said at the top of the hour was that most authors approach agents to soon. My take on why this happens is because authors are often so desperate for external validation that what they’re writing is “good enough” that they end up trying to shop their books before they’re ready to be shopped.

Knowing when you’re ready can be difficult, however. You’re not an objective party to your own writing process. A firm understanding of whether you’re ready comes with getting your work evaluated, and having the wherewithal to be able to take what comes back at you even-handedly. You have to have enough confidence in your own voice to prevent an editor or manuscript evaluator from taking you too far off course and enough dispassion to be able to see the places where their advice actually makes the most sense for the book. Not having your work reviewed before shopping it to an agent is pretty much asking for a rejection. But then, even if you know you’re ready, you need to be prepared for rejection, and to be able to take it in stride.

Kleinman offered the following very clear and concise method for shopping agents, which I’d like to share here:

Start with a list of ten agents lined up in an Excel sheet and then create the seven following columns:

1. No response (check this after 2 months have passed)
2. Form rejection letter
3. Form rejection with comments
4. Specific feedback or changes from the agent
5. Agent requests chapters
6. Agent asks for the whole manuscript.
7. Agent offers you a contract.

Your only goal here is to fill up the columns. If you’re getting all 1s, 2s, or 3s, you can decipher that something isn't working with your pitch. They aren’t responding to your writing at all, so something needs to get fixed with the way you’re presenting the project. If you’re getting all 4s, 5s, and 6s, then something isn’t working with your writing, and you need to stop before moving onto more agents and review what’s not working.

I love this method because you’re not spreading yourself out into the world too widely and you are using the shopping process as a means to evaluate what you are doing and what you have. It’s a very business-oriented way of going about shopping for an agent, too. And the most important quality an author needs to hone is their savvy. The more you know about publishing and the more you can speak an agent’s language, the more likely they are to want to spend time listening to you and reading your work.

Attending conferences and following agents on Twitter are great ways to start to gain a sense of how they think and what they care about. And as far as rejections go, they’re part of the game—unfortunately. Almost every published author has a hard rejection story to share. Just consider it a badge and keep on. But instead of plunging forward blindly, consider that rejections are actually telling you something and be proactive and strategic about that next step.

Good luck!

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  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    misread, that is...

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Oh, good news! I think I midread your original comment. Okay, good luck!!

  • Kathleen Kern

    Oh, she just asked to see it this week.  It's way too soon to feel depressed.  Two years ago, I would have been waiting in delighted anticipation for the next month.  It's like I'm anticipating rejection before it happens.  I wonder if there should be a "Novelists and their Neuroses" group.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Sorry to hear this, Kathleen. This is really hard and really common---we put a lot of value onto what these agents think. And it can be very stressful when we're waiting to hear back and they're not prioritizing our projects. Hang in there. Keep sending it out! I think you'll ultimately want to be represented by someone who's both enthusiastic and responsive.

  • Kathleen Kern

    An agent asked to see my manuscript this week at an agency I've always wanted to represent me because  we share a similar political vision. The head of the agency asked me to send it to her underling after I sent a query I spent two weeks tweaking, calling it an "exciting" query and telling me they were anxious to read the manuscript.  I googled the agent who will be reading the manuscript and found we have a whole lot in common, love similar movies on Facebook, have worked for similar causes.  All but one of my regular readers have said my current manuscript is the best I've written so far and…I'm feeling really depressed.  I sort of feel like I've had my hopes high before with a lot less encouragement than this.  So if this agent doesn't like it, then what's the point?  I just want her to like it way too much.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Mardith, yes, you can pay an editor, but you want to work with someone who has traditional publishing experience. We are offering manuscript assessments through She Writes Press, so you can certainly contact me there if you're interested in getting a bid: info [at] shewritespress [dot] com.

  • Marcia Fine

    This was a concise way to track rejections. At some point, though, you may be ready to take matters into your own scribbling hands!

  • Lesly Devereaux JD,MDiv

    Thanks Brooke, I am writing daily, these post are helpful in telling me what to expect.

  • Patricia Reis

    Hi, Brooke, this is just such excellent advice and SO RATIONAL!  Of course it's a jungle out there - there may not be a map, but there is a path. Thanks! Patricia

  • Mardith Louisell

    Great post, Brooke. Where do you suggest one get the manuscript evaluated? Other than one's writing group, of course.  Pay an editor? Pay an agent who sometimes also reviews? How to find one interested in one's type of writing?  Thanks.

  • Mark Hughes

    This is quite useful. I'd add that any unpublished writer, no matter what stage they're in, can benefit from these three sites:

    Agent Query

    Query Shark

    Miss Snark

      I've been writing for twenty years, and spending the last week and a half pouring over these sites has opened my eyes like you can't believe. So, even if you're nowhere near ready to write a query (but especially if you are), run, not walk, to these sites. Assuredly, these aren't the only holy grails out there, but they are in the cabinet.


  • Megan Oteri

    The spreadsheet idea is really helpful. Great post. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for the comments, @Susan and @Julie. Glad it's helpful. I thought so too!

  • Julie Luek

    Yup, committed that newbie mistake right out of the gate. It's a lot of hard work and revision and critiques before you can even think about approaching an agent. Live n' learn. 

  • Susan Cook Bonifant

    I've made spreadsheets detailing my submission activity to a ridiculous degree, all to scrutinize reaction in the absence of feedback. This is the best advice I've seen and it came along just as I'm researching agents for the next submission! Thanks.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    You're very welcome, Karen. And I have to thank Jeff Kleinman!

  • Karyne Corum

    This is an excellent piece for anyone interested in going the agent route. I think that each writer needs to carefully evaluate how they want to go about getting published. I know personally authors who've succeeded with and without an agent so it's definitely a personal choice.  But however you go about it the process, planning and organization are critical to have a postive follow through to your goals.  Thanks for breaking it down so neatly, Brooke.

  • Daphne Q

    Good post, Brooke. My first rejection was from my college professor who took apart my first draft... but I learned from it and wrote a much better second draft.