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The Evolution of the Rejection

When authors submit to agents, I always say there’s an evolution that the authors and their works go through. Now of course there’s always the possibility that some of you might skip a step or two, but for the most part all of you will go through this evolution in some form or another.

1. Form Rejections: You send out query letters or proposals and you get nothing back but form rejections. Some are nice, personal-sounding notes, while others are badly photocopied or just a red rubber-stamped “NO” across the top of the page. These aren’t easy to swallow, but it’s all part of the game.

2. Requests for More: Whoo-hoo! The agent read your letter and it must have been a dang good letter because she asked to see a partial. She wanted more . . . and then she sent you a form rejection. Hey! Don’t get upset. You’re at step two. You’ve written a query letter that’s strong enough to grab an agent’s attention. Now you need to focus on improving those chapters.

3. Requests for a Full: Holy crap! You got it! The letter was good, the first few chapters were strong, and she wanted to see the full . . . and then she sent a form rejection. Okay, okay. You’re writing is strong, your idea is good, but you’ve worked so hard on those first three chapters that you neglected the rest of the book. Back to the drawing board, but hey, you’re at step three!

4. Personal Rejections: Whether the agent read the full or just a partial she felt drawn to it enough to take time out of her hectic schedule and to give you concrete feedback. It’s still a rejection, sure, you don’t understand what she’s saying, sure, but look at it this way. She actually liked your work and your writing enough, or felt that you had enough talent, to try to tell you exactly what was wrong with it, or why it didn’t work for her. Either you’re almost there or she was just having a nice day. Either way, pat yourself on the back, you’re getting closer.

5. Asks to See More: This is huge, huge, huge and don’t you forget it. No agent needs more work and no agent asks an author to keep her in mind for future works unless she really means it. Clearly she liked your style, your writing, and even your idea. If she wants to see more of your work then you dang well better keep her in mind.

6. The wait is over! This is it. You are there! You got an offer of representation, and if you don’t know what to do about that, next week I’ll post on how we recommend you handle that offer.

That’s the evolution as I see it, but let me know if there are any steps I missed.

— Jessica

Category: Blog


  1. Is there a step (or is it allowed) where you are asked for a sample of your writing and you get a form rejection, then you revamp and strengthen the work? Are you doomed with that agent forever? Will she never want to see the new stuff ever again?

  2. To just expand on the analogy to evolution, as many evolutionary biologists have noted, evolution doesn’t go in a straight line.

    Same here. Undoubtedly unless you’re either magnificently talented or magnificently lucky, you’ll go through all these steps. You’re also likely to get to step 4 and then for a year find yourself back to step 1 and 2 and skipping around. Life’s like that.

  3. And writing, like evolution, moves at a snail’s pace. I have gone from step one to five and back again, here I am starting anew, and it feels like eons have gone by…

  4. On a related note. I have yet to make it to the ‘asks for more’ step yet, and pushing about 35-40 rejections now on my suspense novel, but I got one, ‘one’ mind you where I got the ‘I didn’t connect with the characters, but… you are obviously a talented writer.’ It’s amazing what a pithy half dozen words has done to keep the confidence high and going strong that I will indeed make it some day.

  5. Really? Really, really really? *writer hugs herself upon realizing she’s closer than she thought* Thanks! I SO needed this today.

  6. Great post! May I request a follow-up? I’d love to hear the evolution of the publishing deal.

  7. I’ll say this about form rejections, especially those which come after the partials and fulls:

    I’ll be lucky if I ever find an agent to champion my novel. When that day comes, I’ll grovel and supplicate and do whatever it takes to keep the agent happy.

    But if… IF fortunes ever smile on me to the point where I have offers from two agents at the same time…

    Well then I’m going back to my query tracking spreadsheet and checking the past responses of those agents. If it comes down to Ms. FormLetter (postcard, ug!) Agent Vs. Ms. Scribbled-An-Encouraging-Note-In-the-Margin-Last-Time, guess who gets my contract?

    If an agent asks for a partial — especially with the addition of exclusive reading rights — and keeps your ms out of circulation for more than six weeks, courtesy dictates they owe you at least one personalized sentence, even if it’s meaningless codespeak for “you suck.”

  8. There’s also the step where the writer just gets rejected because the agent’s taste is subjective. Yes, many if not most writers have some room for improvement, but rejections aren’t always about there being something wrong with the story/writing.

  9. Yes, many if not most writers have some room for improvement, but rejections aren’t always about there being something wrong with the story/writing.

    Thank you for saying this. When I was querying, I kept hearing, “Oh, if you’re getting personal replies, that means you’re close.” Well, I got mostly form rejections to my partials and fulls, and wondered if that meant I was a sucky hack. But then an agent from one of the biggy NY agencies–someone I really wanted to sign with–offered representation.

  10. Thanks for reminding me that steps four and five really are something to be proud of. Somtimes when you hit that wall it’s hard to remember the progress you’ve already made.

  11. I’ve decided the evolutionary cycle is a circle, or sometimes it gets stuck. I’ve been all the way around, to the point of damn near selling the book but couldn’t get an agent interested, and back to form letters, then on to requests, to not quite there but almost to back to form letters.

    I’m getting dizzy. 🙂

  12. Anon 12:07

    Tell me about it! I got two rejects in a row from magazines with “I can’t tell you why I’m rejecting this, because there’s nothing wrong with it. But I don’t love it enough to take it.”

  13. I was spotted by an agent from one of the top 5 agencies after a short story of mine was published. She has now offered me representation…I didn’r realise how lucky I was, not having to go through this process. Going to work extra hard on my full length novel for her now…

  14. I’ve been thinking a lot about this cycle lately. I seem to have stalled at 4, 5, 4, 5 and never get to that elusive 6.

    The interesting thing is, when I first started writing, every step was a celebration. Heart beats faster, beaming smile crosses face. As we hit 4 and 5 over and over again, it becomes heart falls, furrowed brow crosses face.

    It’s nice to hear that these steps are in fact, something to still get excited about.

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