Writers in the Storm

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April 6, 2020

A Creative Way to Handle Query Rejections

by Karen DeBonis

When I became serious about finishing my memoir, I also became serious about writing and submitting essays for publication as a means to build my credentials. My rational brain understood that competition was tough. My irrational heart did a poor job of managing its expectations. I received no after no, and each one stung.

I knew a rejection didn't always imply my writing was bad. Perhaps the piece was a poor fit for a publication or an editor, or the topic was redundant, or other submissions were incrementally more literary or moving or clear or relevant.

The Early Years

I submitted material that, at the time, felt worthy of The New Yorker. But when I reread my rejected pieces, they seemed better suited for the compost bin. Seriously? I thought that was good? Finally I did what a successful writer must do. I asked for (and paid for) feedback. I opened my mind to editorial critiques. I built my skills and thickened my skin to the sting of rejection.

Still, it’s one thing to have an essay rejected, and another thing entirely to have my memoir—my baby, my life’s work, my life story, all that drama—turned down. I needed to be prepared.

Readying for the Big Leagues

Last fall, after twenty years, my memoir was finally completed. It was time to query literary agents.

I took a pitch-writing class, read dozens of successful query letters, watched scores of YouTube videos, and paid for two rounds of edits on my letter. I’d compiled a short list of agents, culled from the acknowledgements pages of similar memoirs. Social media searches provided additional leads, as well as QueryTracker.net, PublishersMarketplace.com, and ManuscriptWishlist.com.

Reviewing the Stats

I rated my seventy targeted agents according to how well my project fit their interests. For example, an agent at the top of my list represented an author with a book forthcoming about shamans. So in my query letter, I referred to the freaky shamanic experience that happened to me the day my son was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

A second agent indicated she wasn’t interested in “me-moirs,” so I explained how my people-pleasing theme was neither “me-moir” nor “mom-oir.” Another agent wrote of her fondness for gaining new perspectives, so I described how my story would enlighten her, as well as readers, about the destructive nature of compulsive agreeableness.

You get the point.

Checking the Scoreboard

Following recommendations from experienced writers, I batched my queries and sent customized emails to five agents over three days in February. I promise I didn’t check my in-box more often than every five minutes for the first twenty-four hours.

Less than a day after my fifth query, I received my first rejection via generic email reply. I was neither surprised nor discouraged. But I realized I’d better prepare for the onslaught.

How can I reduce the sting? Some writers wallpaper a room with rejections, but I had no room or wall to sacrifice. And I wanted to take my rejection-management plan a step further: How could I make it fun?

Making My Own Trophies

Have you ever had an answer come to you before you’d barely finished asking the question? As soon as fun came to mind, so did origami. Indulging another side of my creative spirit seemed intoxicating. I hadn’t tried those intricate folds since I was a kid, and some people would describe the process as more frustrating than fun, but I wanted to give it a shot.

I found this video and immediately bought some brightly colored paper. (Note: It's very detailed, so I've summarized a bit below.)

Here’s my first rose:

I've since made my second rejection rose, and here are three tips:

  1. Square-off your 8.5 X 11 paper by folding the top edge and cutting off the excess.
  2. Start with your paper print-side down if you want the text to show on your finished rose (I didn't do this with my first one.)
  3. Follow the video steps exactly. When she flips the paper over, flip yours. When she turns it ninety degrees, turn yours. It matters!

I even made a video of the finished product for you. Front and back.

I thought I’d have a vaseful of roses by now, but three of the agents haven’t replied yet. Probably they’re just not that into me and my project. The din of crickets is rejection of another sort, and maybe when the noise gets deafening, I’ll find some kind of loves me, loves me not daisy origami.

Until then, I’ll grow my red bouquet. I just sent another batch of queries, so by the time you read this, my single bloom will hopefully have company. When life gives you thorns, make roses!

What about you? Do you have a creative way to handle rejection?

* * * * * *

About Karen

Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently in submission for publication.

A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-seven years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey  at www.KarenDeBonis.com.

Top photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

22 comments on “A Creative Way to Handle Query Rejections”

  1. Nice story. I've queried seven books over eleven years. I've worn out "How to..." books writing query letters, synopses, proposals, etc. So far, I'm up to about 1,400 agent and publisher rejections/non-responses without a single request to read a manuscript. Not one. I did the same sort of research you did for both non-fiction books (Self-published on Amazon.) and three novels. My beta readers love my books. They don't understand why agents don't ask for a read. One beta reader loves my stories and says the books she buys off the book shelves end up in the trash before she finishes reading them.

    How many roses can I plant in an 11th floor condo to make this colossal disappointment feel good?

    1. Vern, nothing will ever make that feel good. That's just flat-out hard, and I'm sorry you went through that, but I so admire your tenacity. I hope you've managed to retain the joy of writing, as that's the most important thing at all. (Just my humble opinion.)

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

      1. Thank you for the comments. I've been writing since high school; I'm just now 78. I've been published in both scientific and trade journals. I have an op-ed column in The Oklahoma Observer. I wrote an op-ed column for a small, award-winning newspaper in Texas. I write. Joy? Sure. Right now, I have to shuck the burden of so many rejections without any feedback before the creative juices will once again flow. My beta readers all tell me to keep writing too, and that they can't understand why no agent/publisher will bother to read my manuscripts.

        How are you doing?

    2. Oh Vern, that's a lot of rejection. I'm not sure even a whole perennial garden could take away that sting. I'm not going to offer advice, because I'm not seasoned enough to know what to suggest, and because I'm sure you've done it and heard it all before. All I can do is say I'm sorry, and hope that sharing your disappointment and frustration eases some of the pain.

      1. It does. Thanks. Now, how to find an agent who will read a manuscript before cleaning our their "slush pile" from queries coming "over the transom"... We work too hard to be disrespected like that. Moreover, no feedback means no idea about quality of query letter OR manuscript. I have a beta reader who is an internationally known scientist and artist who thinks my books are great. She travels a lot and tells me that most of the books she buys at airports end up in the trash before her flights are called.

        1. Vern, the thing is, none of it's personal. The agents are busy and rarely making any money. The writers are busy and rarely making any money. If we don't do it because we love it and need to create stories, the rejection process with wear us to shreds. I think that's why the indie market got so robust is that writers needed to captain their own ships without being worn down by all the rejection.

          That being said, we have all kinds of writers here - literary, non-fiction, memoir, genre fiction (mystery, romance, etc). We are an all-inclusive writing community. I'm glad you stumbled upon us for Karen's post. Hit the archives - there's a lot. 🙂

          1. Again, thanks for the encouragement. At my age and with multiple careers, I'm not used to failure at anything. It's hard to unhitch that wagon from the submission/query process. I hadn't realized that agents aren't making any money. For all those high-rent addresses in NYC, one would think that they're selling something to keep the lights on. I know that publishers want a "guaranteed" 10,000 copy sell before they'll be willing to publish. How do they know without reading the book? The whole world wonders..... Stay safe. Stay home.

  2. Good for you finding a creative response to rejection. I like what you said about rejection not meaning (necessarily) that the piece is bad, but rather it just might not be a good fit or redundant. I'm on deck to start the query process with my WIP. I wish you the best finding the perfect publisher for your memoir...or is it contracted already?

    1. Thanks for sharing your take-away, Irtrovi. I'm glad the "not a good fit" philosophy resonates with you. And I wish you luck on your querying journey! Mine continues...as it probably will...

  3. I'm in the midst of querying a book to agents right now. I almost didn't read this, but I'm glad I did. Logically I understand it could take a hundred queries (or more) to find the agent who sees my vision. Illogically, it hurts each time I get a no--especially after a request to see the full manuscript! And often they say, "Keep trying. I think this will find a home." But I wander homeless. So I like the idea of taking a visually positive spin on the rejections. Staying positive is everything! Good luck to you with your book!!

    1. Logic and emotion are arch-enemies it seems, Sharon. I haven't yet been asked for a partial or full, but I imagine those rejections sting a little more. But it sounds like you're getting some good feedback, so I hope that's a good omen! Best of luck to you as well.

    2. WOW! You actually had an agent ask to read your manuscript!! Did you write a great query letter? You can probably sell that alone to the thousands of authors who never get a manuscript read.

  4. Your roses are beautiful! A wonderful thing about technology and writing in this pandemic era is that we don't have to change a thing to forge ahead. Thank you for bringing creativity to this process.

    1. Thanks so much and I'm glad you enjoyed my roses! In spite of some of the inherent evils of technology and the internet, they have held many blessings lately haven't they?

  5. Thanks for posting your roses with us, Karen. There are writers who will use this quarantine time to work on this creative project and find some beauty in those dreaded rejections. I saw Susan Elizabeth Phillips speak at a conference several years back and her stance on rejections i"s "throw it away" and "get it out of the house." I like your method better!

  6. The roses are beautiful. I'm happy that you've found a positive way of dealing with rejection. I do better with out of sight, out of mind. I read the rejection letters, respond with a thank you for your helpful comments if given any, and use visualization. In my mind I let the sadness I feel fill a red balloon, cut the string and set the balloon sailing into the air. This technique helps me.

    Agents have a difficult job. I believe that most of them don't like to pass along rejection letters but that is part of what they do. Some never respond at all. A few have sent encouraging words, which I appreciate.

    I once went to a conference in Phoenix where an agent who sent me a "no thank you, but keep trying" letter spoke. When she had a free second, poor woman was slammed, I thanked her and explained why after her shock wore off. LOL. We all need to be appreciated.

  7. Love the roses. I suppose it's wrong to make the letters into little Voodoo dolls of the agents and publishers that reject me and pin them to the walls of my office...

  8. Hi Karen, What a lovely post. The roses are fabulous. Although, I must admit, the voodoo dolls appeal to me too. 🙂 Wishing lots of luck finding the perfect home for your fascinating memoir.

  9. Such a sweet idea. I love how you are turning these rejections into a positive and creative experience! I wish you lots of luck in the query trenches.

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