Friday, October 10, 2014

Likes and Dislikes... a Note on Rejection and What to Do Next, from Susan

Like every agent, I pass on more projects than I request.  Often, I receive a kind reply, asking if I can take a minute to explain why I’m passing, or to give some advice about what would improve the project.  I wish I could reply to each of these requests, but in lieu of that, here are some of the reasons I pass, and some suggestions about what to do next.

The first reason for a pass is that the project just isn’t right for me.  I think it’s fair to say that most everyone involved in books and publishing got here because they love reading.  From the time I was six years old, curling up with a new book was a favorite pastime, and that’s never changed.  When I consider queries, I bring that life of reading with me -- I’m looking at your material through the lens of all the books I’ve read and loved, as well as those I’ve read and not loved.  My own likes and dislikes inform my response, of course, and so a pass doesn’t necessarily mean that your idea isn’t a good one, or that it’s not written well.  It simply means that my particular heart doesn’t beat faster when I read it, but someone else’s may!

So, when you get a pass, remind yourself that any one agent is just that: one agent.  One person.  Dust off the slightly bruised ego (it happens to all of us, agents get rejections too!), and go on to the next.

Another reason I often pass has to do with the marketplace.  For instance, right now it’s a challenge to sell YA science fiction, as many editors have acquired quite a bit of that, and have enough for now.  I can enjoy your writing, but if it’s in a genre that’s challenging to sell, I may have to pass.  But more often than a certain genre that’s currently oversold, I see projects that don’t fit into their category in some way – a picture book text that’s over 1000 words, while most texts these days are 500 words or less, or a novel that’s YA in subject matter, but MG in tone.

The best way to make sure that your book is aligned to the market is to read, read, read.  Read as widely as you can in the category you’re writing (i.e. picture books, chapter books, middle grade, YA, etc) – set yourself a goal of forty books in six months, more if you’re working on picture books, and don’t stop there.  It’s only in reading a quantity of books that you will start to appreciate what makes a MG voice, as opposed to YA; how picture books texts can be so minimal, and get across character so fully; how detailed non-fiction texts tend to be, etc. 

The one thing you don’t want to do, as you read, is to try to determine what the next trend will be.  Trends are often short-lived, and therefore frustrating to chase.  Write your book – the book that only you can write.  Reading will give you the tools to do that, or as Stephen King says, “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

Sometimes I pass because I feel that the writing isn’t strong enough.  I’m looking for writing that totally captures me; that feels so true that it makes me laugh and cry.  That’s not easy to do, and ultimately, I know of only one way to get your writing to this level: practice.  You must keep writing, in spite of the passes, and keep growing your craft.  But how do you know that you are doing that?  Agents and editors aren’t able to give in-depth feedback for projects they haven’t taken on, so how do you know you’re on the right track?  You need to find your writing colleagues!  Joining a writing group can be invaluable, and going to a writers’ conference is a great way to find other writers you are simpatico with, not to mention another source for feedback in and of itself (via one-on-one or pitch sessions etc).  Writing can be a lonely experience, reach out to your fellow writers to find support as well as the feedback that will help you take your writing to the next level.

So, in short, here’s what to do if you get a pass:

  1. Remember that agents have their own likes and dislikes, just like anyone else
  2. Create a writing group
  3. Attend conferences
  4. Read, read, read!
  5. And most of all, KEEP WRITING!

 Any more questions?  Let me know in the comments and I’ll reply.


  1. I understand editors (and readers) tiring of something like dystopian novels (a sub-genre of science fiction). But I was wondering how this happens with an entire genre like science fiction? Thanks!

  2. Well, I don't think readers are tired of science fiction, but as editors became swamped with dystopian, that took up the space on their lists for science fiction all together, if that makes sense. But these things are a pendulum, it'll swing back the other way eventually!

  3. Hi Susan! Thank you so much for doing this! I just wondered what your thoughts were on writers replying to rejections on a full or partial manuscript, especially when you have given something other than a form response? No reply at all, so it doesn't clutter up your inbox? Or a polite thank-you? Something other than those two options? Thanks!

  4. I can only speak for myself, but I don't mind a brief reply to a pass on a full/partial. I don't mind one for a query either! I don't always reply (especially if it's a reply to a query), but I think a polite thank you can never be wrong.

  5. Thanks for this post, Susan, and for offering to answer our questions! I received a nice rejection with feedback. However, I had done a revision that addresses the feedback. Can I reply with a polite 'thank you' and offer to review the revision. Or just let it go with a 'thank you?"

    Shari Schwarz

  6. Thank you so much! Your answer about responses to rejections was very helpful!

  7. Shari, I'd go ahead and let the agent know, briefly, that you have a revision. If you don't hear anything back you can take that as a final pass, at which point I wouldn't go any further.

  8. Thank you, Susan! I really appreciate your advice.


  9. So true to all the points. Reading a few books outside your own genre also helps, just to expand your horizons. For example: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz opened my eyes to new narrative styles--it inspired me to take more risks.

  10. Hi, Ms. Hawk. After how many rejections would you suggest an author take a look at their query letter and revise it?

  11. Hi Lissa,

    This is a hard question to answer, as there are other factors to consider. For instance, I request a query letter and the first 10 pages of your project. I rarely pass based on the query letter alone, and it does happen that I read a great query, but the pages aren't right for me. In that case, changing the query letter isn't the right way to go. But if you're querying agents who ask for query letter only and you've gotten a fair number of passes (hard to say an exact number, 20+?), then maybe a new letter is in order. Hope this helps!

  12. Hi Susan, it was great to read your post! Very informative and helpful. I have one question - as an aspiring picture book writer, I have three completed manuscripts I'm ready to send to agents. After receiving a rejection, is it okay to send another query to the same agent for a different story or would you recommend waiting a while? Thanks!

  13. a3bernstein, I'd probably wait awhile, just so it doesn't seem as though you're going to barrage the person. Good luck!

  14. That makes sense. Thanks for the advice!

  15. Hi Susan. I wonder how important formatting is these days when almost all submissions are via email? My email program wont double space. :(