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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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?
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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.
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