Surviving Rejections – Ten key factors that will keep you sane while submitting your novel
by W.H. Matlack
Hooray! You’ve finished drafting and editing your first novel. It’s been a stressful, uncertain, but immensely rewarding process. Looking back, it seems that the hard work is finally over, and surely agents will climb all over themselves for the privilege of taking your beautiful words to eagerly awaiting publishers. Certainly in a couple of days, or weeks at the most, a nice, fat contract from an important New York agent will show up in your email. Perhaps a month or so after you sign that contract, your new agent will call you with the good news that your book has been sold to a major publisher, and guess what? A major motion picture studio wants to make a feature film based on it, starring you in the lead, of course!
No, I’m not trying to make fun of new novelists. In fact, right after I finished my first novel, most of those same thoughts rattled around in my head. I remember a website I visited that gave advice to new authors for finding agents. It even had a section titled, “Things to do when you visit New York.” I imagined myself getting off the elevator at my new agent’s office and being happily escorted by an exuberant young assistant-to-the-assistant agent into a large conference room filled with all the many people who would eagerly help make my new book a best seller. They would all rise and give me a standing ovation.
I would be offered coffee, handed a plate full of expensive croissants, introduced to everyone as their most exciting new author since Hemingway. We would sign a generous (to me) contract and then all go have lunch at Tavern on the Green. It would be a beautiful New York day, and everyone would recognize me as “that author.”
No, I didn’t actually believe it would happen like that, although…some authors have come close to it. Take John Grogan’s Marley and Me. I saw him speak at the UCLA Book Fair. He said he got up every morning at five and wrote until it was time to go to work. He didn’t talk about the difficulties he had with his initial submission process, but being a working journalist helped his credibility…a lot. Very soon, the book was sold and became a New York Times best seller. It changed Grogan’s whole life. The book was made into a hit movie, and Grogan was thrust into the mega-spotlight of highly successful authors.
Bad dog makes good novel
For a more realistic contrast to Grogan, look at JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It took her seven years to finish the first novel in the series. During that time she had to suffer the death of her mother, divorce from her first husband and poverty. However, she believed in her work, and when finally published it became the best-selling series in history.
Keep at it
So, what will the submission process be like for you? Most likely you will receive hundreds of rejections over what could amount to months or even years. Just think of it. Hundreds of agents and publishers will all tell you one thing over and over, “your work just doesn’t make the grade.” How will you keep your self confidence, not to mention sanity, during this grueling process? Well, below are ten guidelines that will help armor you for the coming, negative onslaught.
Believe in your work
Is your novel good? Will other people who don’t know you want to read it? Why? What will draw them in and keep them interested? You need to take a very objective look at what you’ve done. It’s a hard thing to do, but absolutely necessary. Consider joining a critique group or giving it to a few friends to read. When you have objectively concluded that you’re product is both good and competitive with what else is out there in your genre, don’t let anyone shake that conclusion. Ever!
Believe in yourself
You’re an author now. It doesn’t matter how successful (in terms of sales or reviews) your book is. You’ve done something that most people just talk about doing. And it was hard, exciting, rewarding…it was art. You’re an artist, and no one can ever take that away from you. Even if no one else ever reads your work. Think of Emily Dickinson. Alone in her room writing, writing, writing. Fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime, but she was a writer, a major poet, and a great artist. You’re a writer, too. No, actually more than that. You’re an author. A novelist. Even Emily wasn’t a novelist.
Not a novelist
Edit until you are sick of it
Editing your work is like polishing a beautiful car. It eliminates annoying little imperfections that are distracting to a reader. Good editing makes your work shine. Don’t forget to do word reduction and delete repeated words or phrases. Bad grammar, missing words and other little mistakes can cause both agents and publishers to reject your work outright, and probably with a snotty flair. The best way to do this is to put your work down for a couple of weeks, and then carefully read it through three or four times. Yes, you’ll get sick of it, but remember, “Wax on wax off” makes us and our stories stronger. Have someone read it as your first-line editor. It’s very difficult to find your own typos.
Develop a submission plan
Submitting is a lot like fishing in a big lake. You need to plan. First, whom are you targeting? Agents? Publishers? Both? Personally, I think targeting agents is very difficult for a first-time writer. They get hundreds of submissions each week, and if you are an unpublished writer you are likely to get tossed into the rejection pile with just a cursory glance at your pitch. (We’ll cover the pitch letter below). The only people who seem to successfully beat this rap are those with some degree of fame. Take Marcia Clark for example. She gained fame as an LA prosecutor on the O.J. Simpson case. Sure, she lost the case, but so what? She got a great deal of on-screen time during that trial, so when she decided to leave law and become a mystery novelist, getting signed was no problem. In interviews she says she’d rather be known as an author than as a failed prosecutor. She’s got three books out now, and they are pretty good, so maybe that will happen someday.
Not a prosecutor. A Novelist
I think, and it’s only my opinion, it’s better to look for small, independent publishers who will work directly with authors. It’s a faster track to publishing because the agent is cut out of the process. Agents can take months or sometimes years trying to sell books to publishers, and they never take first-time authors out to lunch at Tavern on the Green. When your book is available on Amazon, does it really matter if the publisher is a well-known New York publisher?
Make sure you have the right bait
You’ve proven yourself as a writer, now you have to prove that you can write a pitch that promotes your novel. The pitch is all important because it’s likely to be the only thing that gets read. If they like it, they’ll ask you to send them the first three chapters, or maybe the first ten pages. That’s called a “partial” request. Next comes a manuscript request (the whole book). You can still get either of those rejected, but it means you’ve passed a barrier with at least one agent or publisher.
Getting the additional requests is the true measure of how successful your pitch letter is. It’s the bait on the line, and even a partial or manuscript rejection is okay. It means the fish are biting.
There are several good websites that offer a lot of help drafting pitch letters. Take a look at several of them before beginning your draft.
Know where the fish are biting
Do a little research to find agents or publishers who are buying work similar to yours. A very good website for finding agents (and some publishers) is Querytracker.com. They list about 1,800 agents and 193 publishers. The program allows you to sort for agents or publishers based on their genre. From the resulting report, you’ll be able to research all of them individually. The report will tell you what kinds of quires they accept such as email or regular mail. You’ll also see statistics on how many inquiries they receive and what percentage they ask for additional submissions.
Each time you send them a query, you punch a little button that adds your query to the database. Using the program continuously updates it with data. There are a couple other sites like this one, too, so shop around a bit.
Emphasize your ability and willingness to market your work
Sadly, neither publishers nor agents will do much of the marketing of your book. Your ability to market your “product” is almost as important to them as your ability to write it. All the good “how to write a pitch” sites will tell you to make sure to make a compelling argument for this in your initial letter.
Be prepared to be rejected
Oh, you’re going to get rejected, baby, and you’ve got to develop a thick skin. Just be aware that it happens to every first-time novelist. For example, I sent out 139 pitches to agents for my first novel. Over a nine-month period, every one came back as a rejection with the same verbiage, “Your story is crap, and no one will ever, ever publish it. Take up plumbing or drywall instead of writing.” Well, that’s the way I read them, anyway.
I was getting ready to self-publish (a perfectly viable alternative). In fact, I had just gotten off the phone with a person who was going to help me format for Amazon, when a new email flashed on my screen. I said to my wife, “I’m not even going to open it. The last thing I need is another rejection.” She said, “Open it. You never know.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a contract. My wife is always right.
The bottom line is: all you need is one. It’s just like selling a house or a $50 glass of lemonade from a little stand on the sidewalk. All you need is one, and they’re out there somewhere, but if you never try to reach them, you never will.
All you need is one sale
Everyone goes through it
Except for those fortunate authors who are already famous, everyone goes through the same thing. I don’t know what the percent of success to failure is, but bookstores and places like Amazon are full of books – ebooks, paperbacks, hardbacks, there are thousands of them. And almost every one of those authors went through the same process. The difference between them and the invisible ones who gave up? That’s right. They didn’t give up.
Start writing the next one
So, here’s what happened with my second novel. I was about half way into my submission process when I thought, “OK, you all don’t like that one. I’ll just write a second one. Maybe you’ll like it better.” The benefit of this thinking is that I had a follow up novel a few months after the first one. Remember. Writing is what you do. Just keep doing it.
Who is W.H. Matlack?
He is a prolific writer of novels, short stories, graphic stories and terse letters to city officials who are trying their best to totally screw up his town. His latest novel for Solstice Horizons is titled, Noir Town and is available at: http://amzn.to/1jwSMgq