When I wrote my post on mistakes I made the first time I sent queries, which you can find here, I talked a lot about the technical things I got wrong, and touched very briefly on how my thinking made the whole process harder. In this post, I’d like to go a lot more into how I wished I’d mentally prepared for the query process. This isn’t something I’ve seen a lot of people talk about, and I know for sure it’s something that would have helped me on my journey. So, if you’re a writer who plans on querying agents one day, or you are a writer who still HATES the query process, then this post is for you.
“You’re going to get a lot of rejections, so get used to it.”
“This is just part of the process, so try to relax and enjoy it.”
“Agents get a ton of queries every day – it’s not personal when you get a rejection letter.”
Before I sent my first query letter, I’d seen all these phrases floating around in one form or another. I read them, and nodded sagely. Rejection letters happen to every writer, they’re part of the process, got it. I had been in writing classes, I’d dished out and taken critiques on my work, I knew how to roll with the punches, so rejection letters would be no problem.
But also, in the back of my mind, I didn’t quite believe that rejection letters would happen to me. Not many of them, anyway. Because I also saw the hints of writers receiving multiple offers of representation from agents, and then they had to pick. So that meant that some writers were rolling in a pile of “Yes, please, let us represent your book!” I imagined that I might be one of them.
I also got the sense from all of the “Put on your armor when you query” advice that it was a bit tired. I saw the same phrases over and over again, referring to rejection letters like they were some sort of big, awful thing. But they felt so cliche and tired after a while that I just started to brush the advice off. It didn’t mean much, and so I figured that a rejection must not be that bad, otherwise people would have more to say about it.
I suspect that a lot of writers and agents aren’t very descriptive when it comes to rejection letters, because they don’t like talking about how really gut-wrenching rejection letters can be to someone who isn’t ready for them. After all, hundreds of writers receive them every day. It’s much nicer to focus in on the success stories, on the books hitting the shelves right now, than on the thousands of hopefuls clutching their unpublished manuscripts, sending out e-mail after e-mail, only to get back no after no.
If that sounds grim, that’s because the process can be really brutal. But with the right mind-set, it becomes much easier to take on.
Sometimes we hear instructions to don our armor so frequently that we forget what this actually means. Putting on armor is not like putting on a sweater. It’s not a thing you slide up over your arms then throw over the arm of the couch when you get too warm. Armor is a massive pain to put on. It has to be buckled and strapped into place, which takes hours. And once it’s on there, you sure aren’t taking it off unless you really must.
The mental armor needed for the query process is like this. It takes work to make it, and ideally it should be part of your daily life. If you put some effort into it and keep refining it over time, then you’ll be so glad that you can go into the query process confident that it won’t reduce you to a pathetic puddle.
I have been a pathetic puddle, trust me, you want to avoid this if you can.
To avoid that, I’ve built up a system of many components. You may find that some of these strategies are great for you, or you may find you have to tweak them, or try something else, but these are good places to start.
I talked about this in more detail in my post on query mistakes I made, but this really is an important component of getting ready for querying. Don’t allow yourself to have little doubts about the condition of your manuscript wriggling in the back of your mind when you get rejection letters. Make sure you’ve revised several times, and edited. Get some beta readers, and listen to what they say. Learn to write a good query letter. Basically, make your manuscript shiny, then wrap it up with a bow.
That way, when you get a rejection letter, you will know for sure that it’s not because your manuscript is in rough shape. You will really know that your work just wasn’t right for the agent you queried.
Control Your E-mail
There are a lot of things in the query process that you can’t control. You can write a masterpiece, send it out to a hundred agents, and still get nothing but rejections if none of those agents think there’s a market for that book.
Agents are also human beings with moods, and who knows how they might be feeling when they get your query? You know how you have those days when your favorite movie just doesn’t sound good, and you’d rather watch re-runs of Modern Family for six hours straight? Agents are people, too, and the kind of day they’re having can affect what they say yes and no to.
Don’t let this lack of control totally freak you out, though. I know it’s tough – I write books because I like to have a say over every little detail, and letting go of that need to make things go the way I envision is hard. That perfectionism is a benefit when I’m translating my vision to words on a page. But it doesn’t serve me well when I’m in the query process.
So, if the chaos of the query process gets to you, shift your focus to something you can control. AKA: stop refreshing your e-mail twenty times a day.
One of the worst reactions I’ve ever had to a rejection letter happened early on in my first round of queries. I opened up my e-mail right as I sat down to have dinner at a restaurant one night. For some reason I was the only person at the table, I was waiting on everyone else to arrive, I opened my email on my phone, and there they were. Two rejections. Both form letters.
Then I had to sit and chat through dinner while those rejection letters gnawed at me.
Don’t do this to yourself. Set aside a time when you check your emails every day, when you can be ready for them. When you have time to react and respond to them, whether the news in them is good or bad. You can’t control if and when those rejection letters come, but you can control when you see them.
Use that locus of control to your advantage, and when those rejections come you will be much better equipped to deal with them.
Set Aside Your Ego
I’ve heard a lot of agents say this, and it bears repeating, as well as some expanding. Rejection letters aren’t personal. They do not reflect on your writing ability. They do not signal the end of your writing career.
This is not about you.
Really let that sink in. Rejection letters are not about you. They aren’t about your skills, they aren’t about your value as a human being.
When you send out a query, you are presenting agents with your work. One piece of your work. And agents aren’t offering to represent projects they don’t believe in. Agents only say yes if they are willing to stick with your manuscript for the long haul.
Have you ever read a book, and you knew it was a good book, but it just wasn’t your favorite? You enjoyed the time you spent reading it, and you put it down satisfied, but you didn’t find yourself gushing to your friends about how awesome it was? I know that describes the majority of the books I’ve read. They were good, I liked them, but I’m not going to go back and re-read them five times.
Then there are the books that I treasure, that I read over and over. I practically throw them at my friends and beg other people to read them.
You want your agent to feel that kind of enthusiasm about your book. You want them to feel like your book should be in the hands of everybody in the world, because they love it that much. And not every agent is going to feel that way about your work. In fact, most of them probably won’t. So, when agents say no to your project, it’s because your manuscript really, truly, is not right for them. Take that as a sign they respect what you do – especially if they take the time to write a personal response instead of a form letter.
Then keep searching. The right people for your book are out there. You will find them, if you keep looking, and if you remember that the people who say no didn’t do it because they dislike you.
They did it because they didn’t love your project enough to spend hours and hours of their time telling publishing companies how great it is. And that’s a good thing. You want your work in the hands of someone who loves it as much as you do.
Start A New Project
You wrote your manuscript, you revised it, you edited it. Then you researched agents and wrote a stunning query letter. So, you send out query letters, and then you relax. It’s about time, right?
Five days later, you’re refreshing your email twenty times a day, and spending the rest of your time chewing your nails, wondering which agents are reading your query, what they think of it, and when they’ll respond.
The best possible distraction? Working on a new project. It’s impossible to sit in front of your laptop, drumming your fingers or clicking the refresh button if you’re creating an outline or some character sketches. While you’re querying is a great time to start on your next manuscript. That way, if you get a rejection letter, it’s really easy to point out that your entire writing career doesn’t hinge on that one project. You have more material where that came from.
The more fun and exciting this project, the better. Maybe work on a genre you’ve never tried before. Write some poetry or a short story. Whatever you do, make sure it’s something that lifts your spirits and reminds you why you wanted to become a writer in the first place.
Treasure Direct Responses
The first time I queried I took every rejection letter as a blow. It didn’t matter if it was a form rejection, if it was personally written, if it was just no response at all by a certain date. Every single one hurt.
With time, however, I’ve learned the value of those rejection letters written just for me. Even if it’s just a couple of lines, I know that the agent liked my work enough to spend valuable time making a message. For most agents, it’s a sign of respect, a way of acknowledging the writers who have stood out from the crowd.
If the direct response contains specific reference to something you’ve done well, then that is a real treasure. Take those compliments to heart – most of the time they’re not just nonsense sent to make you feel better. If an agent who sees hundreds of queries a month says that what you’ve written is creative, then there’s probably something to that.
If you aren’t getting any direct responses at all, and you’ve received more than a handful of rejections, then that might be a sign you need to look at your query letter or your manuscript, and ask yourself if you’ve expressed the core, driving forces of your book clearly. Sending queries is a learning process, and you definitely have to be willing to revise as you go if you aren’t getting much response.
And if you do get even a small tidbit of praise from a very busy agent, remember how valuable that is. Don’t class it with the form rejections and the no-responses. Let it encourage you to keep going, because you’re on the right track.
Celebrate the Victories
It’s really easy, when I’ve worked on something for a long time and it’s become vitally important to me, to see only what I’ve done wrong, and forget all the things I’ve done right. But when I forget to remind myself of how far I’ve come, I turn every minor roadblock into an insurmountable mountain. And this mind-set can make querying especially difficult.
Every rejection letter is like a drum-beat: wrong, wrong, wrong.
So, before I even get those rejection letters, I try to remind myself of the obstacles I’ve already overcome. I keep in mind the things I’ve learned along the way. And I make lists of all I’ve done right. From the perspective of all my victories, the little setbacks don’t seem so enormous.
For me, I don’t just keep a mental tally, either. As part of my schedule in my bullet journal, I spend some time every week making a list of my successes from the last seven days. And when I hit a really big milestone, I take time to savor it. When I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I don’t fret over how long I spent writing it, I congratulate myself on a job well done. When I get a request for a full manuscript from an agent, I cheer and tell everyone I know. It might ultimately lead to a no, but even that is a victory.
If you want to survive the rejections with your mental sanity intact, don’t forget to throw yourself a little party when you achieve something good.
Find Your Community
Without Sam, Frodo never would have made it to Mount Doom. Without Hermione and Ron, Harry Potter never would have survived long enough to defeat Voldemort. And Batman would have fallen to The Joker quite a few times if not for Robin. Every journey is easier when you have comrades by your side and at your back.
You might need writer friends who can help you revise or show you the ropes of querying. You might need non-writer friends who will cheer you on through pure faith in how awesome you are. You might need people who will go with you every step of the way, and offer perspective when things look bleak. You might need family who don’t understand what you’ve written at all, but love you, anyway.
I like having all of those things. The bigger your community, the more people you’ll have to cheer you on when the rejection letters pile up.
So, reach out and connect with the people around you, whether on the Internet or in real life. You’ll find your journey much smoother when you have a fellowship to back you up.
These are the components of the armor I wear when I send out queries. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what works for me, but all the time I’ve spent working on it has been well worth it. Now, I can receive a rejection letter with joy, because it contains some small compliment that shows me how much my work is valued by the agent who wrote it. This is a radical change from where I started.
As you query, or even as you seek critiques for your work, remember to keep working on a system that helps you weather the difficult moments. It’s as much a part of the process as learning how to finish your first manuscript, and once you’ve constructed your own armor, you’ll find that putting your work out in the world becomes easier.
As always, thank you for reading Bright Ink, and happy writing!