By Kellie Larsen Murphy
Life After Rejection: What To Do Before You Query Again
No matter how accomplished a writer is, he or she is bound to have experienced some rejection along the way. This month’s writing show, Life After Rejection, focused on query letter rejection and how to manage it, learn from it, and try, try again.
JRW’s Karen Chase opened the show with a story of one author’s path to success, littered with 61 rejections. Along the way, she heard, “There is no market for this tired writing.” After finally landing an agent (61 rejections later), her book was picked up by a publisher in only three weeks! That author was Kathryn Stockett and the book, The Help.
The night’s panel included Lisa Hagan of Lisa Hagan Literary, an agency known for anticipating future (non-fiction) book trends and among the first to successfully create, shape, and develop appropriate projects with their worldwide clients. Books represented by Lisa Hagan have been covered on the front pages of The New York Times, USA Today, The New York Times Book Review, and The Los Angeles Times.
The panel also included David H. Morgan with more than 40 years in the publishing industry. He has worked as a Senior Fiction Editor for a New York-based literary agent, a freelance acquisitions editor for literary agents, a literary agent, a publishers’ sales rep, and the Director of Promotion and Marketing for a regional press. He’s presented both fiction and non-fiction workshops at top-level writing conferences, created books for agents and major publishing houses (as a ghostwriter and co-writer), and assisted writers to become published authors.
Sarah Beth Jones, the final panelist, is a business and empowerment coach, helping people access their own inner wisdom in order to unleash their most confident, talented, amazing selves and build their most powerful and creative lives. She is also a blogger, freelance writer, and former columnist. She kicks around in poetry and fiction when she’s feeling frisky.
Kris Spisak, an author and editor with a BA from the College of William and Mary and an MLA from the University of Richmond, served as moderator. She began her career as a college writing instructor. However, after six years in the classroom, she transitioned to professional writing and editing.
With the focus on “how to learn more from rejection” and “how to better our chances for success,” the show was divided into three parts. The first explored rejection from the perspective of Lisa as an agent and David as a publishing professional/agent/writer. The second part focused on how to use that rejection and turn it around with Sarah Beth as coach. The last part of the show was open to questions.
Right from the start, Kris tackled a big question. “Why is rejection such a difficult issue?”
David was quick to remind the audience rejection is not unique to writers. As kids, we heard “No” all the time. As adults, we may associate rejection with shame and embarrassment, but it’s really “just a stumble.” As authors, we can make it better. “It doesn’t mean you’re no good. It just means the manuscript may not be ready yet.”
Describing specifics as to why some books are rejected, Lisa (who works with non-fiction only) says she knows what she wants to read. It has to be personal and interesting to her. She is quick to reject queries that appear to be a mass email. As an agent, she also deals with rejection when she’s representing clients. If five prospective publishers suggest a manuscript needs work, she will help the writer to make it better.
David pointed out it’s not just agenting and publishing that are subjective. Buying and selling are also subjective. He used the example of taking a book off a shelf in a bookstore, reading the jacket, and putting it back–that’s a form of rejection.
For Lisa, it’s important that prospective clients have taken the time to research her as an agent and know that they would be a fit with her list. David agreed but suggested it can be harder to research a fiction agent–full client lists may be less available. In looking for market trends, Lisa reminded the audience that what’s on the bestseller list is no longer trending for her. Since books take up to two years to publish, she is actively searching for something new. “Write what you want. Don’t follow the trend of what’s hot,” she advised.
Getting back to rejection, Kris asked how a writer would know if their manuscript needs help after a rejection. David admitted 90% of query rejections are based on the letter since the agent hasn’t read the manuscript. “Your manuscript has not failed.” He suggested changing the letter which he said may be the most critical piece you will ever write.
Lisa emphasized that a query letter is a business letter. It should be professional and give a sampling of your voice. David described a query letter as a marketing tool and a way to synopsize the drama in your manuscript versus giving a synopsis of the story. You want to convey the energy in your story rather than a line by line retelling.
For non-fiction, the query letter must also show the author’s platform, any significant social media followers, and relevant experience. Can the author speak on the radio or do a webinar on the topic?
David reminded authors that when building a platform, they should take off their author hats and put on their business hats. Authors must acknowledge their role in marketing.
In closing part one, Kris asked the two panelists what they wished writers knew.
Lisa said, “I get rejected every day. Rejection is not personal. Pick yourself up and keep going.” Along the same line, David added, “Let go of rejection. No one has ever succeeded without failing. It’s going to happen.”
Sarah Beth opened part two asking the audience how they felt when they were excited. Did their stomach flip and flutter? And how did they feel when they were rejected? Did their stomach flip and flutter? She reminded us that the physical feelings are similar but there is an emotional shift that is different. We can look at rejection through different eyes. As an admitted astronomy geek, she said she imagines herself as a pulsar, getting huge and spinning and shooting beams of light. “A pulsar has a huge impact. Social media gives us similar reach. Use among your resources.”
In a fun exercise, she asked the audience to stand, feet apart, hands on hips like Superman. The act gives you a feeling of “doing” and puts aside that little voice in your head that says you can’t. Acknowledge the voices and practice “focusing” to get to your personal wisdom. We can even name the gremlins in our heads (Sarah Beth named one of hers Wampus). As writers, she advised us to use all facets of ourselves.
Another exercise she likes is to build a collage from magazine clippings to represent our best self and what we hope to accomplish as writers. When it’s finished, when you see your creative vision, you can say, “That’s me.” (She’d love to see one by anyone in the audience and JRW will post!)
The full panel was available for a Q&A session that covered a little self-publishing, a little marketing, and a little more on query letters.