Aside from making great wallpaper, kindling, and kitty litter, believe it or not rejection letters do serve a purpose. You can make yourself a better and more successful writer if you analyze them properly. But here’s the problem with rejection letters — it’s practically impossible to make sense of a form letter that maybe includes one little teensy tiny bit of individualized advice. Plus, they can be completely contradictory — one rejection letter could say “needs more monkeys” (mine) and the other letter could say “too many monkeys” (some lesser agent). What’s a writer to do??
Here’s the secret to understanding these maddening missives: rejection letters are pretty much worthless by themselves. Unless a rejection letter happens to be incredibly detailed and specific and you completely trust the person’s reaction (sort of like the holy grail of rejections), you’re really not going to learn too much. And you’re going to learn even less if you analyze a rejection letter for hidden meaning (you’re also going to rack up the psychiatry bills). One letter by itself isn’t much help. BUT. When you start accumulating rejections you can start to make more sense of them by analyzing the trends.
So let’s say you received twenty-five rejections from agents on the query to your new novel. If you didn’t get any requests for partials at all, and you only got form letters in return (i.e. a rejection that didn’t specifically mention an aspect of your work), something’s wrong. It could be that your project isn’t marketable, your query letter wasn’t good, you queried the wrong agents… something that is preventing you from getting in the door. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer, it just means that you’re in for a reevaluation of your project and your approach.
If, however, you’re getting requests for partials (hooray for you!) and fulls (even better!), but you’re not getting an agent to bite, it may mean that you’re close but that something isn’t quite right, and maybe you can make some changes that will make your project better. This is where an accumulation of a some non-form rejection letters can actually be helpful.
Spread those bad boys out on the table. Avoid the temptation to set fire to said table. And start to analyze the common threads. Don’t go nuts with this, you aren’t looking to crack the Da Vinci code here (holding them up to mirrors will not be helpful, trust me), just see if there are a few common things that you can pick out. Maybe a few people said that your project isn’t marketable. Or maybe a few had similar problems with characters or plot lines.
Here’s the next most important step: if you are hearing the same thing again and again, listen. Don’t say, “Oh, well, my work is what it is, they’re just STUPID.” We’re not stupid. Most of the time. Make that change. Try again. And keep changing until something works.
Lastly, when you receive a rejection, avoid the temptation of sending back an aggressive missive that questions an agent’s intelligence/savvy/heart in order to exact one small bitter piece of revenge. This is a small industry. You may need to query me again down the line. I really don’t like receiving these types of letters, and my memory is as long as the day… uh, is long.
And tomorrow… in an all new This Week in Publishing. Secrets will be revealed! “Damnit Kate run!” Lives will be changed. “Where is Meredith?” And stay tuned for a shocking escalation in The Great Scrotum Debate. Tomorrow… in This Week in Publishing.