17 Ways to Cope with Rejection While Querying Literary Agents

12 Aug

Querying literary agents can be a long, hard road. It was for me. I sent out almost 400 queries for several different books over 6 years before signing with literary agent Carrie Pestritto.

It sounds rosy now that I have hit that milestone. Yay, I made it! But let me tell you, it was a hair-pulling, fit-throwing, soul-killing, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad emotional journey. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy (well, okay, maybe on a few people…). The whole six years weren’t like that, of course. Or else I certainly would have given up. But the times when I got several rejections on a full manuscript on the same day? Yup, those were pretty bad.

It’s not that hard for everyone. But it is that hard for many writers. Wendy Heard sent 500 queries before finding her agent. Joy McCullough wrote 10 books before getting one published (5 before getting her first agent).

I hope that the querying journey is easier for you. But whether you’ve racked up hundreds of rejections or you’re only on your first few, I’m here to share some tips that helped me cope with all the rejection.

I was inspired to do this because, recently, Pitch Wars asked writers to tweet about their self-care tips via #PWPoePrompts. Then they asked for the best advice people had gotten from a mentor, and a lot of that of course included dealing with rejection. I thought I’d include my own list of tips particularly for coping with rejection while querying, and compile some of the Pitch Wars tweets (I did my best at this with TONS of tweets and some tweets threading oddly. I may add more at some point).

Here are my main tips for coping with querying rejection.

  1. Realize that sometimes the haters are right. I barely queried the first manuscript I finished because I got a wonderful rejection that kindly pointed out that I needed to work on my writing on a sentence level. So I did. I read craft books, hired a writing coach, and applied to and started studying at the University of Baltimore’s wonderful MFA program. And I wrote another book, which I thought would be easier than starting over on the current one (it was).
  2. Seek out mentorship and critiques. Before querying my second novel, I wanted to get feedback from experienced people to avoid sending out something that wasn’t ready again. I worked with my professor at the University of Baltimore, Jane Delury, and then applied for a few different mentorship contests. I was over the moon when Rachel Lynn Solomon chose me to be her mentee, and I learned so much from working with her. Rachel held my hand through the querying process, as the book was sadly widely rejected. I applied to Pitch Wars again with another book, which Diana Gallagher mentored me with, and again, I learned so much from Diana. I even applied to Pitch Wars again when I wrote yet another book, but I think the universe knew I was being greedy, and no one chose that book (though some really nice mentors gave me great feedback!). Not only did I learn from all of the mentors I worked with, I got emotional support from them. Jane, Diana, Rachel, and many other people from UB, Pitch Wars, SCBWI, and other writing communities have been so valuable when I’ve been on the brink of giving up. Just a few weeks ago, I received some tough critiques from experienced editors, and I texted Rachel about how much I was hurting and struggling. She kept me going, and just a few weeks later, I had an agent.
  3. Hire a coach. If you don’t get chosen for a mentorship via a contest or you can’t afford an MFA, or if you are like me and you want even more education and feedback, you can always hire a coach or editor. This person can help you figure out if you’re ready to start submitting to literary agents or what you need to do to get there if you’re not. It’s hard to say whether someone will get an agent or not for sure. I certainly had many votes of confidence from experienced writers along my journey and didn’t get an agent until I totally switched genres. Luck plays a role. But a good editor can save you many rejections by telling you if it’s obvious that you have more work to do. Most editors I know (including me, plug!) are also happy to give their clients pep talks as needed even if it’s been a while since you’ve worked together. Even if you pay the editor well, this will cost you a very small fraction of an MFA. Make sure you go with someone who gives feedback that is just as encouraging as it is honest. Most editors will offer a short sample edit so you can test this out. I’d also suggest trying to have a phone call or meeting after receiving feedback from the editor you choose, as that helps to build a relationship and soften written feedback. Note that most editors I know don’t offer phone calls or meetings before signing a client. I’m happy to email pretty much until the cows come home but if I spent an hour on the phone with every potential client I’d never get paying work done. I take my own advice in terms of hiring editors. After seeing her speak at a conference, I hired the amazing Kate Angelella to teach a fiction class in my area, and have since hired her as an editor. She recently talked me through a “should I give up” moment. Kate is wonderful, my mentor Rachel edits, my friend Jenny (mentioned later) edits, I edit, and you can also search for prescreened editors on Reedsy.com and get multiple quotes at once (though reaching out directly will save everyone involved money).
  4. Write another book. If you keep getting rejections from agents on one book, even after revising it, chances are there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept or something holding the book back in the current marketplace. It’s also possible that you’re just not going to nail the revisions until you grow as a writer and get more distance. Eventually you are going to run out of agents to query. I suggest writing another book while querying, if you can stomach it emotionally. I also suggest making that book VERY different from the book you are querying, or else all of your rejections are going to seem like rejections on the book you are writing as well as the one you’re querying. Try a different genre or age category. Try a different tense or point of view. Change it up! That way you’ll be learning and growing as a writer while you wait. It took changing to writing and querying picture books for me to land an agent. I’m not giving up on my novels, and now I have an agent who is invested in helping me revise them.
  5. Do things other than writing. Okay, so most writers have day jobs, but I’m talking about doing something that fulfills the part of your soul that dreams. For me, this is horseback riding. If you want to see me cry, curse, or likely both, ask me about the several months I was getting rejections by the dozen on a novel agents had been super excited about during a pitch contest, throwing up multiple times a day from hyperemesis, and taking my horse to the vet hospital to have eye surgery. I had lost so much about my identity. Once I was well enough that I could avoid vomiting on my projects, I took up knitting. It helped. A little. For you, maybe this is drawing, cooking, baking, running 5ks. Whatever it is, find something else that you enjoy besides writing, because writing can become an emotional minefield when you’re trying to query.
  6. Find easy wins. This is related to finding things other than writing. During those hellish months, if I could have entered some local horse shows–preferably at a lower level than normal–so that I could get some blue ribbons, that totally would have helped. Of course, competitions mean you have the possibility to lose. Consider doing something you have more control over, like finishing a scarf or painting, or playing some silly games on your phone (who’s spent hours doing that? Not me, certainly…).
  7. Snuggle your animals. Luckily for me, I could still snuggle my horse while getting rejected, and I could definitely still snuggle my dog! There’s something so wonderful and magical about having a fur baby to keep you company. They won’t think you’re silly when you’re cursing out agent so and so for sending you a form rejection (and they’ll save you from the faux pas of doing this on social media or heaven forbid actually writing back to them!).
  8. Consume chocolate/wine/whatever treat of your choice. Just keep in mind that you might be eating/drinking in that way for six years, ha. I certainly gained some weight over my six years of querying, but oh well, I needed that chocolate. Just throw in some emotional exercising with your emotional eating and you’ll be fine! Or perhaps you could get super into cooking healthy recipes that thrill your family. That’s another area where you can get some wins easier than with your writing.
  9. Take a break. It’s totally okay to stop querying and sending your work out if you can’t mentally stand it. I did this at several points over my querying years. Sometimes I stopped writing for a while. My college professor, the late Reynolds Price, once told a class full of English majors that his best advice for aspiring writers was to stop writing. If you couldn’t stop…then you were meant to be a writer. So, if you’re feeling discouraged, stop writing. My best guess is that in a week, or a month, or a few years, you’ll find that itch and you’ll start writing again. Then at least you’ll know that you can’t help doing this horrible thing to yourself so there’s no use in trying to pretend you can stop. Plus, I always have more time to read when I’m not writing, and reading is the most important thing you can do to improve your craft. Though sometimes when I was really down in the dumps about querying even reading was emotionally hard for me to do. Netflix definitely counts as studying storytelling (you know the rejections are really bad when even Netflix is too painful to watch).
  10. Separate your querying email. For all that is holy, DO NOT get notifications on your phone from the email you use to send queries. That is the surest path to a breakdown. I created a separate email to use for my queries and disconnected it from my phone. Sure, I can log in through a web browser, but I won’t see a rejection when I’m just bored while standing in line at the grocery store. With separate emails, I don’t run the risk of getting a soul-crushing email when I’m searching for something for work. I also knew that when I was on my honeymoon I didn’t want to see rejections but also wouldn’t have the strength not to look at my querying email, so I had a friend change my password for me so I couldn’t look. She sent requested manuscripts for me while I was gone and only told me the password when I got back. Thanks, Jenny!
  11. Find your people. This is what contests like Pitch Wars are all about. If you’re lucky, you might get a mentor and the amazing community of mentees. But you’ve already won by being introduced to the other mentees who are applying. Interact with people on Twitter. Find out who is writing in the same genre. Who loves all the same fandoms as you. Who is in the same Harry Potter house. Trade chapters with them and see how you do as critique partners. Pitch Wars sparked a friendship with a fellow applicant one year. I got in and she didn’t. We stayed in touch, and she got in the next year. Then, she got an agent before I did. Throughout all this, we remained friends and critique partners. (Hi, Carlyn!) Within and without Pitch Wars, I’ve found writers, published and unpublished, to be amazingly helpful and friendly people. We’re all sitting around at our own computers typing away in isolation, so we’re pretty happy to be distracted ahem connected via Twitter, or our social media of choice. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
  12. Realize that most authors have been in your shoes and are your allies and not your competition. Some people write one book and get an agent and a book deal within weeks. I’m sure those people are very kind and deserve the best but I also kind of hate them. The vast majority of published authors have experienced many rejections and still experience rejections. Even bestselling authors have projects rejected by their agents and editors. So, you’ll find that many published authors are willing to lend a helping hand or a kind word. I have had authors go out of their way to talk to me about their agent stories, send me ARCs, run critique giveaways, connect me with their agents, and encourage me in ten million other ways. Be careful here, though, as it’s easy to cross boundaries and become a nuisance. Support these authors first. Go to authors’ readings and chat with them afterwards while they’re signing a book. Buy their books or check them out from the library. Review their books. Tweet about their books. If you like a tweet from them, reply with something interesting (but never about their appearance, please). If you like a blog post, leave a comment. Sign up for their newsletters, where they will probably send excellent advice. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore wrote a great article about establishing relationships to ask for blurbs that also applies here. Just don’t overdo it. DMing an author on a regular basis or liking every single one of their social media posts is too much. Also be wary of asking for favors like critiquing your work or referring you to their agent. You will, however, be surprised at what many authors offer because they’re amazing people.
  13. Keep your eyes on your own paper. There is a flip side to having lots of writer friends, particularly in large groups like Pitch Wars where everyone is querying at the same time. It’s wonderful to have people who are at your exact stage of the writing life. But when you start to see offers flying in for Pitch Wars people, it can really hurt that you are not one of those people. Even if you get an agent, but somebody else gets a book deal and you don’t, it can hurt. Try to stay focused on your own work. Log off from social media if you need to. New books are published on Tuesdays; I find that Tuesdays can be a tough day to be on Twitter if I’m not up for an onslaught of other people’s good news. I also might still have to avoid pitch days on Twitter because they bring up such a swirl of emotions for me (I often did very well on these Twitter pitch days and got my hopes up only to be rejected!).
  14. Don’t suppress your emotions. In order to be genuinely happy for your writer friends, you have to realize that you’re also really freaking jealous. Let jealousy in and then let it go. If you suppress it you might just be a jerk and not really understand why. Similarly, when you get a rejection, admit that it’s tough and sucks, but that you also still have to keep functioning. Give yourself a set time to mope. An hour. An afternoon. An evening when you get home from work. Even better, never check your querying email unless you can have at least fifteen minutes to mope in peace afterwards. Then, move on. Celebrate with your author friends. Get back to work. Write again.
  15. Set a rejection goal. If you’re the type who is likely to stop sending your work out if you get even one rejection, try to see how many rejections you can accomplish in a year. 100 is a common goal. This is generally from submitting multiple pieces, such as a book and several short stories and essays. The good thing about setting this kind of goal is it means you have to keep writing new stuff to send out!
  16. Read one-star reviews of your favorite books. This is a great way to remind yourself that writing is super subjective!
  17. Read other people’s rejection stories. Like this one! Or any “how I got my agent” story. Most success stories share the struggles along the way, and while reading about other people’s success hurt, hearing about the rejections they overcame always helped me feel better.

Well, that’s about it from me. If you want to be notified on an irregular basis when I have advice or news to share, you can sign up for my newsletter!

Now, here are some gems of wisdom from Pitch Warriors!

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