Cracking the Code

You know, it’s really frustrating when you, the neophyte writer, gets the personalized rejection, or the invitation to resubmit, or the full request and while you’re having your squee moment, your friends and family don’t get it. Oh, they mean well, but they really don’t understand what’s going on. Consider this post a public service announcement, and a place where you can direct them to understand why you’re so excited, even when it’s technically a rejection.

When submitting fiction (I don’t have a lot of experience with non-fiction, so I’m not really covering that here), here are the responses you can get…

1) Form rejection.

This one’s rough. It’s the equivalent of the fourth grade participation ribbon in the science fair. It’s basically a letter saying that you showed up, and didn’t win the blue ribbon. It generally gives you little to no idea what you’ve done wrong, what you’ve done right, or how you might improve. A form rejection does not necessarily mean you suck, however. It may mean that you’re so close that you almost sold, but there’s something the agent or editor doesn’t like. They may not be able to put words as to their reason, and may not understand how to help you through it, so you get a form rejection. There’s a lot of websites out there about deciphering the form rejections. Let me save you the time.

A form rejection merely means; not for us. Most submissions get form rejections. And when I say most, I’m talking somewhere probably between 90 and 99%. There’s really no reason to take them personally, and no reason to believe that you’re just misunderstood. One, or even ten, or twenty form rejections really don’t mean anything about your story. When you get many, and nothing else, it’s time to realize that there’s something wrong with the story and seek out constructive critique (which you should already be seeking before submission). Your story just isn’t ready, or maybe you’re submitting the wrong story, or it’s the wrong story for that agent or that market. It’s time to do more research, and work more on your project and/or your submission package.

Also, it’s worth saying here that agents and editors are not required by ANYTHING or ANYONE to give more than a no, thanks. They get deluged with more submissions than you could imagine. They simply don’t have the time for personalized rejections on everything that they get. Which is another reason why an agent or an editor taking the time to say more than “no, thanks,” is such a huge deal, even if it’s not a yes.

2) The encouraging positive (and personalized) rejection letter.

This is a “not for us”, but generally saying nice things about your writing. They may be encouraging about your specific work, even though they’re saying no. It’s nice to get these letters, but they also don’t always have much content that help you improve the story. Even so, it’s a shot in the arm in an otherwise discouraging business. These letters are really rare.

3) The constructive personalized rejection letter.

This one is gold. It tells you either generally or specifically where you’ve gone wrong, and offers constructive feedback despite the fact that they are not buying your work. They’ve seen good in your work and are seeking to help you. For the most part, this is genuine, and something to pay attention to. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to make the changes they suggest. This also does not mean that you get to resubmit to them; merely that they are reaching out to a writer with potential. This is even more rare.

4) The negative, rude, insulting rejection letter.

Thankfully this is the rarest of them all. Over four years of writing and submitting, I’ve only ever gotten one of them. I was very upset. In truth, I don’t believe that the person was trying to be insulting; I think they made some very poor choices in how to communicate what they were saying. Once I got over it, I came to the realization that this person had been very excited about my project and felt very let down by it, and let that disappointment color what they probably thought was a constructive personalization letter. We’re all human. It does happen. I had a few very bad days, and I moved on.

5) The personalized constructive rejection letter with an invitation to resubmit.

If you get this letter, take my advice; don’t ignore what they’ve told you. You may decide that the changes would fundamentally change your story and that it would no longer be the story you were trying to tell. Even if that’s the case, you have to also consider that it may become a stronger story. This is the best kind of rejection letter you could get, and it’s not a final rejection letter. Instead, it’s a wait and see if you can make the changes letter. Only you can decide if the changes are appropriate, but take them seriously before you discard the advice. This is the foot in the door we all hope for, and it’s the rarest of the rejection letters, except for the one discussed in #4, above.

6) The request for more letter.

This is also known as either a partial request or a full request. Both generally involve submissions of novel projects. When you send a novel, you don’t start out sending the whole thing. Instead, you start out with a query letter, the first few (generally five, although some may want more or less) and a page or two plot synopsis. The agent or editor then decides if they want more, and can request more pages (can be the first 50, the first 100, or whatever they require) or the full manuscript. They’re not gonna buy until they see more. If you get the request for more, you still could end up with any of the form rejections listed above, but you will likely not get to the acceptance stage of a novel without getting this letter.

and last, but certainly not least,

7) Acceptance.

Go celebrate. They want to buy your story, or the agent wants to sign you as a client. This is the goal. The odds of getting here are astronomically bad. That doesn’t mean that your job is over. You’ll have contracts to deal with. You’ll have author copies to negotiate (if possible). If you’re unagented, it might be time to learn about rights and royalties and other compensation matters. It’s now time to bone up on the next step, but for now, you’ve reached the Holy Grail of selling your work. Congratulations.

(And if you were trying to get rich, it isn’t this way. The odds of winning the lottery are better than the odds of becoming a gazillionaire by your writing. If that’s the goal, go buy a lottery ticket instead. But that’s another topic for another day.)


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