Why Am I Getting Rejected?

Getting rejected is useful feedback.

If you're getting rejected, consider hiring an editor to help it stand out.

If you’re getting rejected, consider hiring an editor to help your submission stand out.

First drafts get written by ignoring the critical voices in your head. Good novels happen when you listen to those voices, weigh the criticism, and plan a revision. But in a competitive market, only the great novels get published.  Getting rejected hurts, but it signals a chance to see your novel with new eyes and make smart revisions.

My co-editor, Janice Obuchowski, and I have evaluated lots of manuscripts. There are three levels of questions that a submission needs to answer positively before it moves out of the “automatic no” pile to the “maybe” pile.


1. Are we publishing/accepting this kind of story right now?

Don’t underestimate the power of a good fit. When you have a pile of 50 manuscripts in front of you, and you can pick maybe one, you look for reasons to reject. Did the publisher already do a story about New England boarding schools? Is everyone tired of Divergent knockoffs? Maybe your manuscript is too similar to something an agent just struggled to sell, and s/he isn’t optimistic about going out with a similar novel so soon.

For this reason, don’t take getting rejected personally. Or at least adhere to some form of the rule: “You get one morning of moping in bed, and tomorrow, go back to work.” Sometimes, for reasons you can’t control, a rejection isn’t your fault.

To mitigate this problem: (1) Don’t get your heart set on one specific agent, publisher, or residency opportunity. (2) Do lots of Internet stalking. Is the person you’re querying really right for the manuscript? A $25 Publishers Marketplace subscription will save you some heartache. (3) Read books that have been published in the past five years. Do this for the enjoyment of it, but act on the ones you like. Find out who repped the book, if s/he’s accepting queries, and send out your materials. To stay current on the books people are talking about now, read Shelf Awareness, the book reviews in Publishers Weekly, and the Lit Hub bookshelf.


2. Is the query strong?

Do we see a passably good author bio, interesting pitch, professionalism, and any personal connections to consider?

There’s an art to a good query letter. Fundamentally, you’re not penning a glowing review of your own book. You’re making a calculated pitch to the future first member of your sales team: the agent. Agents don’t get paid unless they sell your book to a publisher. The query is your 300-word chance to convince them that you’re a good gamble.

Many sites deconstruct good pitches, so I won’t belabor the process here. Briefly, though, your very best chance of catching an agent’s attention is to be genuinely familiar with her or his successes (see #1). Just as important, agents and editors have a finely tuned jerk detector. Take everything your mother should have taught you about playing well with others and apply it to your career.


3. Is the writing good?

That is, how are the first three sentences of the sample pages? Does the first scene hook me, and does the second scene build on my interest?

The bad news is that if your writing isn’t ready for prime time, it doesn’t matter if your best friend’s mom is the most powerful agent in New York publishing. You might get some extra advice along with your extra-nice rejection.

The good news is that this is your wheelhouse. You’re the writer. You have spent years practicing, tinkering with scenes until they meet your standards. You splurge on books about structure and storytelling; your library card is scratched and smudged from all the times you’ve pulled it from your wallet to borrow another novel. You’ve kept a notebook since your teens. You debate the cost of that workshop or that conference for days, and decide that it has to be worth it. You always decide that it is worth it. You drag yourself to late evening writers’ workshops, huddle around someone’s pages and debate how to make the story better, and you leave energized. You get up early. You stay up late. You open your laptop while the baby sleeps.

Eventually, the writing WILL be good. It WILL stand out.


The Standout Edit

I’m going to plug my editing service here, but with my writer’s hat on. I have splurged on hiring freelance editors, and it is worth it. There are lots of good ones. Recently, I invited Janice Obuchowski to join The Threepenny Editor because she is definitely a good one. She specializes in short stories and the “standout edit.” If you’re getting rejected, we can help.

Is it your query? Does the writing need work? Do you just need to learn more about the publishing industry? We answer your questions directly, and then we help you understand what you need to do. Although we can’t guarantee that you will get an agent, working with an independent editor will improve your odds and–more important–demystify some of your questions about why you’re getting rejected and what will improve your writing the most.

Every project is different, so send us an e-mail or give us a call (412-849-8596) to discuss your writing and publishing goals.


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