Rejection is difficult, frustrating, and discouraging. It can be every negative adjective you might find in the thesaurus. But it can also help build persistence, even in the face of rejection by some two hundred literary agents.
This was the kind of test I faced after completing my first adult novel.
I never intended to write a book like this. I love writing for young readers and find it very fulfilling—not just because of the wonderful letters I receive telling me how much my books mean to them, but also because the kidlit community is so generous and supportive, and they make me feel that what I do is important.
But my latest manuscript took its own course, perhaps because of its location and time period, or because it was inspired by my own parents. Either way, I found that I had historical fiction on my hands. When I decided to send out my manuscript, I already had agent, but she only represented work for younger readers. I also needed an agent who would represent my adult work. I hoped that having four published young adult novels would help catch the attention of literary agents, but it proved to be irrelevant.
Loretta Ellsworth grew up in Iowa and lives in Minnesota. She’s a former teacher and a graduate of Hamline University with a Master’s Degree in Writing for Children. She’s the author of four young adult novels. Her adult novel STARS OVER CLEAR LAKE, will be published in May by Thomas Dunne Books. The novel is about a farmer’s daughter who meets a German POW working on her father’s Iowa farm. At the same time, her brother is off fighting Germany in WWII. The characters meet again years later at the iconic Surf Ballroom.
I developed a system of sending out ten queries every couple of weeks. I kept fastidious notes on when I sent a query, the agent I queried, and the response (if there was one). I started with agents who I most wanted to work with, ones who represented books that I thought were similar to mine in some ways, and agents who I’d heard were very good.
While some agents do represent only adult work, I found that many of the agents I queried would only read my novel if they could represent all of my work. That limited the number of agents who asked to read partial chapters, or the whole manuscript. I received many form letters, you know the kind: Unfortunately, your project is not one that we think would be right for our agency at this time.
And I received some that were a bit more personal: I think you are a good writer and you have a good idea. However, I wasn’t enthusiastic enough to move forward with representation.
A few said they were unable to connect with the emotions of the narrator. And, since my book is set in both 2007 and the 1940s, a few agents loved the historical sections, but didn’t relate to the modern ones. I think that having four novels already published and having worked with different editors helped me dissect the various criticisms I received, and also helped me when I was discouraged, because who doesn’t get discouraged when you receive so many rejections?
I sought help, too. After receiving one hundred rejections on queries, I decided to seek the help of independent editor Alexandra Shelley, who has worked with such clients as Kathryn Stockett (The Help). She helped me find the focus of my story, the source of suspense and mystery in each chapter, and develop better characters. And she provided grueling line edits that included cutting dead wood, marking awkwardness in my prose, and cutting interior scenes that didn’t advance the plot.
I continued to send out queries, too, even as my manuscript was in a constant state of flux. (Agents usually ask for the beginning chapters of a manuscript, and mine never changed that much. With each edit, my book became more focused, and I found that more agents were providing individual feedback, with a few even phoning to chat. But still, I had no offers of representation, even as I approached two hundred queries.
I wondered if some agents were worried about whether I’d be torn between my adult novels and my YA novels, although no one specifically stated such. It felt like the elephant in the room. I wondered if agents feared I’d write one adult novel and then return to YA.
So, I finally took the risk and parted ways with my children’s agent to pursue representation for all my work. I queried Irene Goodman first. She had been at the top of my list two years earlier when I’d started the process, but she would only consider my manuscript if she could represent all my work. Irene asked for the first three chapters and a few months later asked for the entire manuscript. Needless to say, my manuscript was in much better shape by this time, but Irene still wanted to see revisions to the ending and more emotional resonance in certain spots. After several more revisions, she sent it out to editors. We received an offer from Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press.
I’ve learned a lot about revising throughout this process, and am grateful to have landed the agent of my dreams. Irene gives thoughtful criticism and is a top agent in the field of historical fiction.
Alexandra Shelley once told me, “It takes persistence, flexibility, and creativity to revise.” I think persistence is the key. No matter how many rejections I received—no matter how down I felt about those two hundred rejections—I still held a deep belief in my story. I made the necessary revisions that ultimately sold my novel because of that belief, because I persisted.
Kathryn Stockett received more than sixty rejections from agents before being published. Kate DiCamillo received more than four-hundred sixty rejections before anyone agreed to publish her.
Hope begets hope. My hope for you is that my writing journey will inspire you as you navigate your own dream of publication.
And if you receive two hundred rejections? Don’t worry about it.
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