Sunday, December 9, 2012

Interpreting Those Query Rejections

Now, I know the topic I'm planning on discussing today is not exactly everyone's favorite. I mean, who likes rejection?

*crickets chirp while a roomful of aspiring authors glare at me*

That's right! Nobody.

But here's the thing -- if you're serious about ever getting published one day, and not just simply through DIY e-publishing, then you need to know how to expect, handle, and accept rejection. Believe me, there's a learning curve AND it takes a tough skin along with a dash of perseverance to see this thing through.

Some writers don't even like the term "rejection." They choose to call it something else, most referring to it as "a pass" on the work that was submitted. But deep down, a pass is going to hurt just as much as a rejection, no matter what you decide to call it. Simply put, if an agent or editor outright says no, then it stings!

Okay, what I wanted to do was break down some of what agents request according to their websites, how they respond to the queries, and just how, as the writer, you're supposed to interpret what those agents are saying. Are you the only one being told what's in that email? Are others like you receiving the same "form"? Were these agents worth your time in querying? Things of this nature.

I'm going to discuss the one thing most of us don't like to discuss -- my personal rejection letters. It's become that enormous elephant in the room. Yes, we all get them. For some reason, we're not supposed to mention them, but how can we help others avoid our pitfalls and mistakes if we don't share that very first step?

I'll start by pulling off the most painful band-aid of all:


*Gulp!* I think this is one of the hardest things for aspiring authors to swallow, smile, and then press forward after receiving. We've heard so many times that if an agent requests a full then that means he/she really connected to our story in the query. Well, let me be the one to dash those hopes. Yes, the agent connected to something, perhaps the time period, the fact that the story is written from a certain protagonist's POV, the unique concept, or even your writing style. But this foot in the door is not a guarantee. I have swallowed the bitter pill of full rejections, and let me tell you, it's hard to chase down with only water. Sometimes it helps to have a glass of wine on hand.

On the other hand, the beauty of a full rejection is that the agent usually points out why he/she passed on representation. Sometimes their explanations make sense, at other times, not so much. Here is a sampling of mine*:
"I'm afraid we still felt the pacing of this novel is too slow for our tastes. We're going to pass again, but we thank you for giving us a chance." (With this rejection, I had previously submitted another novel, but the agent passed on that one as well. What both rejections boiled down to was pacing. Other than that, I received very little feedback.)
"I'm afraid this particular project isn't quite right for me but I'd be happy to consider more of your work in the future." (Of course I sent this agent my next novel! I have yet to hear back on that one. Again, very little feedback on this one, which only led me to believe it was a matter of taste.)
"If you haven't placed your novel by the end of the year, I would be happy to consider your other novel." (This was a very encouraging rejection. Although this agent pointed out an issue with the main POV character in my manuscript, I received very little feedback. But, uh yeah, I'm going to query this one again!)
"I loved the premise for this novel, and period detail is quite wonderful. But I'm sorry to say that I just wasn't as drawn to the main character as I had hoped, and ultimately this prevented me from falling in love with the story." (Understandable. At this point with this novel, I knew I needed to do a little work on my MC.)
"While I found the premise compelling and think your writing is absolutely lovely, I am sorry to say that I did not feel much connection to the main character. Her unfortunate circumstances are certainly sympathy inducing; however, I felt that she was a little too cold and it takes quite a while for her to start to warm up and become a character that the reader truly invested in/cares about." (Lovely agent. Back to the drawing board on this book!)
"This sounds more like a YA novel." (This was my first ever rejection on a full. I bawled my eyes out over this one! This is the only feedback I received from this particular agent. Other than the fact that it was a rejection, I had a moment of "Am I even a writer?" because my novel wasn't even remotely written for the YA market. I learned two things from this simple, somewhat harsh comment. First, my manuscript wasn't ready. And second, I needed to work on my ability to weave nice words into a good story. This rejection keeps me humble, knowing that there is always work to be done when it comes to sculpting a better story in the future.)
In my honest opinion, this would be the only category where I would encourage a writer to seriously consider the agent's feedback. If you receive more than one critique about a certain element, i.e. for me it was pacing and connecting to my MC, then look at what's being said and consider making some changes accordingly.


These rejection letters are the ones any aspiring author needs to take with a grain of salt. All you did was send in a query and before you knew it the agent shot back a rejection. These are usually placed in the dreaded "Form Rejections" file, because they seem to be sent en-masse to everyone the agent, assistant, or mail-room kid decided to lump together that day. Here are some of mine (and you may even recognize a form or two that you've received):

"We have given careful consideration to your work and regret that we cannot take it on. We wish you all the best as a writer." (Standard. On a side note: This was a snail mail rejection. I have never had a request for a full or a partial through any of my snail mail queries. A sign of the times, or just an easier brush-off? You be the judge.)
"Not for us, thanks." (I think many of you out there have received this one. Oddly enough, not the shortest rejection I've ever received. I received a "No thanks", but I couldn't track that one down.)
"Dear Writer:
Thank you for your inquiry. We are sorry that we cannot invite you to submit your work or offer to represent you. Moreover, we apologize that we cannot respond in a more personal manner. We wish you the best of luck elsewhere."
(This is the worst of the "Form Rejections" because it begins with "Dear Writer." This says one thing to the author -- "No, I really didn't look at your query.")
"I have read your material, but I did not feel it would be right for my list and therefore I am unable to offer you representation." (Again, very generic and that nagging question of whether this agent actually did read the query.)


This group is a step down from the form rejections. As soon as you press "Send" on your email, a responding email pops right back to you. As with snail mailed queries, I have never received a request for anything from an auto-responding email. In defense of the auto responders though, I will say that it's nice to receive something instead of nothing at all. I personally like to know if my query was received, whether the agent requests anything or not.

Here is one of mine:
"Due to volume, we are no longer replying to each individual query submitted for our review. We will be in touch only if we are interested in reading your work. If you haven't heard from us within 4-6 weeks, it is safe to say that we have passed on the opportunity and wish you the best of luck elsewhere." (Needless to say, this agency never responded.)
And one more for good measure:
"If you received this email in error, don't worry. I regularly check for emails that my automated service mislabels, so I will respond to your non-query email shortly." (I was never sure on this one whether the agent thought I'd sent a query or not. Again, not a peep after the auto response.)


This is kind of an odd group. There are many agents who request sample pages along with the query, and I'll include them in this category. I like the idea of automatically sending a sample, but it takes a little bit of the thrill out of getting a partial or full request. If they don't like those first 3-10 pages, then that's the last you'll hear from them.

Here's an example of one of those:
"Thanks very much for your query and your interest in our agency. You seem terrific and your project is compelling in many ways, so this was tempting, and yet I'm sorry to report that while I like these pages, I'm just not fully in love with them (which is so necessary when it comes to fiction). I realize that's the most frustrating sort of answer to get, but I hope you understand, and please know that I'm confident that you'll find a passionate agent." (Feels very form, but nice and to the point.)
There are online form rejections:
"I am sorry not to be writing with better news, but I hope this response will not discourage you. I wish you all the best with your writing." (Surprisingly enough, they do check those online forms you fill out!)
The random ones that feel like the agent read someone else's work but sent you the rejection:
"Thank you so much for submitting. At this time, I will not be requesting representation of your work. I found the storyline to be all over the place and made it hard for me to stay engaged." (I was only invited to submit a short synopsis to this agent. This was odd for me because my synopsis has helped me win contests and has been read and rewritten so many times that it is literally down to the nuts and bolts of the storyline. I've sent out many of these synopses and this is the first complaint I've ever received, which makes me wonder...)
Ones sent from the assistant:
"My name is ________ and I work with ________. We regret the delay in response, but _______ has been tied up personally and professionally and is just now able to return to reviewing queries. Thank you for sharing your manuscript with us. Unfortunately, we do not think _______ is the right agent for it. We wish you the best with this project, and hope that you find a committed advocate. (At least she was sweet about it. She later sent me an email apologizing for forgetting the title of my manuscript in the rejection letter.)
And those that get passed on to other agents:
"While your project certainly has merit, I'm going to pass. As I'm sure you know, it's important that your agent be totally excited by/committed to/passionate about your project, and I'm afraid that just didn't happen here. I'm sure you'll find others who feel differently. I hope so!" (Again, nice, but I felt like I wasted my time tracking down this other agent and sending a query only to receive what felt like a form rejection.)
Let's not forget shameless plugs. There are a few agents, not many, but a few who feel the need to take advantage of the free postage on your SASE and stuff the envelope with brochures promoting works written by the agent or flyers stumping for the next writer's conference in their area. If an agent expects the writer to show professionalism, then that simple common courtesy should be returned.


In case you don't know, NR stands for "No Response." These are the query letters writers feel get lost in the cyber-abyss. According to most of these agents' websites, no response means they aren't interested. Whether these agents understand it or not, these are the worst responses an aspiring author can receive. That writer has no idea if her painstakingly-written query letter, with perhaps sample chapters included, was ever received. She has no idea if an agent or his/her assistant ever read the darn thing. Simply put, that poor writer is left hanging. There's no closure, only a gaping hole of "what if" replaces that agent's name in the query file.

Here's one of many complaints you'll find filed in the comments on

E-Queried: Early September
E-Reply: December 5. Via assistant 
Form reply "Sorry for Delay. Thanks for submitting. Not right."
I am happy for this. Why? Because I am surprised, nowadays, to get any response at all. It somehow became perfectly acceptable for agents to hit delete button rather than reply button.  
To the "no response" agents out there: A quick "thanks, but no thanks" would take 5 seconds longer. 5 seconds means difference between "get lost" and "have a nice day."  After the valuable time I spend on my personal query, why not show some mutual, professional respect?

This writer has a point. I completely understand that agents are a busy lot. But here's the thing. They expect diligent research about the genres that agency represents, clean query letters, perfect sample chapters, and sometimes more. The writer takes the time to follow all instructions on an agent's website, and then nothing? This should be a give and take profession, but unfortunately it doesn't feel that way at times.

The only advice I can offer when it comes to an NR is don't give up. There are more agents out there in that great publishing ocean! And those who are courteous are much easier to communicate with. To those who have been interested enough to take the time and read my work, I truly thank you! And to those writers out there struggling with rejection, just remember, you're not alone. Many of us receive the same letters.

Strangely enough, this has been a very cathartic post for me. I've never had the chance to share my querying process because, frankly, it's too depressing. Who wants to hear about every door that's been slammed in my face? Especially at this time of year! But I'm glad I was able to share it, because it helps put all my rejections thus far in the past and move one more step forward. I encourage you to do the same!

* Names have been omitted to protect the innocent.

Do you have any querying stories or tips you'd like to share?


To all of our lovely followers out there, I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas and I look forward to seeing all of you in the New Year!


  1. Not having queried anything myself, I'm always curious (and a little nervous) about the types of responses I can expect.

    Thank you for sharing these.

    1. I hope I helped Kari Marie, when it comes time for you to start querying!

  2. This was great, MM, and strangely encouraging. :) Thank you so much for bravely tapping the well of your own experience ...too often we hear generic advice. This was real.

    1. It is strangely encouraging, and like I said, very cathartic for me. I think as writers we get bogged down by so much rejection, but it helps to ease the load every now and again and the only way to do that is to dump the junk in some way, whether burning rejection letters or sharing with others. And, yeah, I get tired of the generic advice as well. Share the pain, is my mantra!

  3. Great topic, Sister Mary! I have a collection of all those letters and I agree that NR can be more frustrating than form letters. If I had to give one tip, it would be that unless an agency specifies against it, find another agent in the same agency and query him/her (after a couple of months or so). In my case, at least four agents requested material after their agency colleagues had said no (one even offered representation!)

    Best of luck to all in your agent searches!

    1. I 100% agree with querying other agents at an agency. At one agency I got a blanket form rejection from the entire agency, but I never adhere to "we" didn't like it. I tracked down another agent from that agency and queried her. She ended up requesting a full.

      One other thing, is that a writer shouldn't be afraid to ask an agent that has rejected one manuscript if perhaps he/she would be interested in reading another of the writer's manuscripts. Our work improves as we progress with each book we write, and who knows? One topic might not strike an agent's fancy, but another might.

  4. Sister Mary and Sister Lorena should write a book about their experiences in the Land of Querying. Bottom line, Sister Lore did land an agent. It´s all a matter of perseverance. The proccess is silly, nerve-wrecking, but it´s what you have. Just go through it with grace, and don´t let it get you down. A rejection has nothing to do with you or the quality of your work. I heard of a writer who got a blunt reject letter, a year later he received a request for the full MS, and the letter came from the same agency! Apparently, not every rejected query letter goes to the garbage can.

    1. I don't think I want to write that book...

      Yes, it definitely takes perseverance. A writer never knows when an agent will be receptive to his/her work, so you just have to keep going.

      And take all those forms with a grain of salt. They're forms for a reason -- everyone is receiving the same letter.


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