Rejection Before Your Open Door

I’m a woman of my word, and am therefore following through on a request from one of my WordPress friends to share a little something about the rejections I received, on the path that ultimately aligned me with my literary agent, concerning my third novel. I’m going to leave specific names out here, and know you’ll understand why.

The rejections I received were by and large voiceless, in that these days, most literary agents leave a qualifier on their submission page that simply says, “If I am interested in your query and want to request more, I will be in touch.” From this, one can safely assume if they don’t hear back from an agent, then the agent is not interested, for what could be many reasons ranging from the genre of the book, to its subject matter, to the possibility that the agency’s guidelines were not followed, or it could be the simple fact that the agent’s hands are full. And because my third novel is a Southern Family Saga set in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis, the task, for me, became all about ferreting out exactly who is representing authors with books set in the South. But one has to cast wide, when looking for an agent. They have to get creative on where their book will fit. In the case of my third novel, I wrote to literary agents that represent Women’s Fiction, Literary Fiction, and commercial fiction, yet my focus was on those interested in or connected to the South. In reading the bio of each agent I queried, I read the fine print to ascertain which authors they represent, what their reading preference is, and paid close attention to those who revealed where they are from. Every time I discovered an agent either from the South or currently living in the South I took a chance; followed the submission guidelines to the letter; and e-mailed my query. If one keeps in mind that a query letter is basically a letter of introduction; that you are writing to say who you are, what your book is about, and where you have been published, then it is less daunting. Remember you, as the author, are also looking for a good fit!

And speaking of daunting, I’ll digress here to say that when I made the rounds with one of my first two books, I received a response from one agent, who wrote only this above my submission: “Show, don’t tell.” Ouch. At least that’s what I thought at the time. You should understand that I write in the first person, and am big on establishing the narrator’s voice, so after I got over the sting, I went to my bookshelf and revisited Anne Rivers Siddons “Peachtree Road,” which is roughly seventy-five percent of the most flawless narration ever written. I pressed on, and the book was published in 2015 as “Dancing to an Irish Reel.” This goes to show to each, their own, and again, you as the author are looking for a good fit.

And speaking of “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” all 54 of its reviews on Amazon are good ones, and I will always be proud of the book. It didn’t make an earth-shattering splash, but I am satisfied that it represents who I am as a writer, and remember, “A writer’s career is a marathon, not a sprint.” I’m mentioning this here because it ties in with another rejection I received for my third book, which is to report that an agent actually took the time to write me to say “You should have hired a publicist; your sales are anemic!” Ouch, again, but I pressed on, and I’ll tell you why: I think writers have a sense of the simple fact that they should be writing. I think this is the salient truth that spurs us on. And whatever one’s belief system is, regarding faith and luck and timing, to possess something of this, in whatever amount, is enough to foster the spirit of pressing on.

All told, I had three literary agents interested in the manuscript of my third book. Two of these agents were in the process of reading it, when joy of all joys, the agent, Julie Gwinn, of The Seymour Literary Agency, called me and offered me representation. Julie felt so right to me for many reasons. I’d done my homework on her, was awed by her background, learned that she lives in the South, and I happen to have a friend who is currently her happy client. The last agent called me after I signed with Julie Gwinn, and I am thrilled to report that I strongly believe the stars aligned with Julie, in the manner they should have all along.

In summation, if you embark upon the road to finding a literary agent, it helps to keep in mind that you are seeking a good fit. What you want to find is an agent who wants to work with you just as much as you want to work with them, for finding the right publisher is essentially a team effort.

To answer my WordPress friend’s request that I write about rejection, I will say it isn’t always easy to weather, but if you press on and keep the faith that the stars will align when and as they should, then one day you’ll come to see rejection as part of the process.






2 thoughts on “Rejection Before Your Open Door

  1. Please forgive me my late reply – I only read and answer blogs on my bathtub sized computer as I don’t have (and don’t want) a smart phone or a laptop. Sometimes a post I really want to pay attention to gets lost for a week or so, and that’s what happened with this one.

    So: Thank you, Claire, this article really provides a lot of insight into the query process, especially the end none of us like. I’ve wondered how helpful rejection letters might be in reforming a query letter to be more effective with the next agent. You brought up a lot of reasons that an agent might not be able to take on project they actually like.

    However – Seems that some of these unnamed agents have a hostile side. I suspect the whole industry is spiking all over the Richter scale because of how upside down the publishing industry is. From your experience, it isn’t the quality of the query letter, though I know yours is excellent, but the agent you contact.

    You researched thoroughly and that seems to be your strength. You know your book, you know which agents are more likely to respond positively. I can’t believe the writers who tell me their book is paranormal-science fiction-fantasy-dystopia-young adult horror-womens lit. Or better, that it’s suitable for all genres and all ages.

    One last question, if you don’t mind. How many agents did you contact for your third book? I know nothing can be based on anyone else’s experience, but I’m just curious. I also write women’s fiction, literary fiction, commercial fiction, and historical fiction – same general categories as you.

    Best wishes for all things writerly. And thanks for answering.


    1. Good morning from Malibu, Sharon! I’ll answer this question first: You wrote, “I’ve wondered how helpful rejection letters might be in reforming a query letter to be more effective with the next agent.” My answer is, upon disinterest, I was given pause, and asked myself, “Did I phrase this correctly? Did I hit the bulls-eye in telling exactly what Mourning Dove is about?” Mourning Dove has a lot of undercurrent to it. There are themes that are not glaringly overt because I think readers are intelligent, and this, for me, was difficult to parlay. But in a query letter, you want to tell about the story; the action, as it were. I’m thinking now it may be helpful to say in your query letter “Here is what happens.” But you have to be concise. That’s the key, because you don’t have a lot of room to ramble on. Now I will suggest we lose the word rejection and replace it with disinterest, or even the idea that it is not a good fit, because this is what’s really happening! You simply cannot be discouraged by any of this, and Sharon, I think you’re too good of a writer to not align with an agent! That said, I sent out somewhere around sixty letters over a six month period. Maybe a little more, I kept handwritten track in various, unorganized places, I confess. Many writers get on Query tracker, or some such, but I shot from the hip when I was in the mood. And to your other point: You wrote, “From your experience, it isn’t the quality of the query letter, though I know yours is excellent, but the agent you contact.” I think you have something here, and my take is that when an agent reads a query, they have to be able to say to themselves, “I can sell this.” They should be able to know where to take a manuscript, and to whom, exactly. Agents spend an inordinate amount of time establishing relationships with editors and publishers; they’re not out there shooting in the dark, hoping what they’re shopping will hit. They are business people in a particular business, remember! And I think there are trends in the publishing business. Right now, it seems to be YA to a large degree. And also keep in mind that agents tend to work in particular genre’s, because this is where they have established contacts. So, again, do your homework on which agents have placed a book where! I hope I’ve answered your questions. If not, let me know!


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