Rejection is brutal.
When I was querying my first novel, I sent out ninety-nine queries. Ninety-nine. I had plenty of partial requests, lots of full requests, but ultimately ninety-nine rejections arrived via email or through that particularly grating squeal of deafening silence.
This guest post is by Shannon M. Parker. Parker is the author of THE GIRL WHO FELL and the forthcoming THE RATTLED BONES, both with Simon & Schuster. She is a proud contributor to WELCOME HOME, a YA anthology on adoption, coming from Flux in September. Parker works as an author and freelance manuscript editor. You can find her and her books at shannonmparker.com.
I told myself I didn’t need to publish a book; I could stop writing. Maybe I was even too busy to write.
My six-year-old son overheard me say I was giving up my dream, and he looked at me with his wide eyes and so-much-zest-for-life smile and said, “You’re so close, Mom! You have to try for one hundred!”
In his young, kindergarten-trained brain it only made sense to strive for a perfect score, right?
His optimism melted me in the way a child’s optimism always liquefies my heart. But that moment was something so much bigger because my son knew too much about profound rejection, more than any person should encounter in a lifetime. For years, he’d suffered some of the worst abuse and neglect a human can endure. He was cast aside. Before joining our family, he survived in a world that was so big and scary and frightening and yet … yet. He managed to retain hope and tenderness and pure joy at the prospect of someone else’s opportunity to achieve their dream. He saw how hard I’d tried to get an agent and his toothless smile nudged me to try one more query. I did. Just one. For him.
Well, I signed with that one hundredth agent and I was happy. So happy.
Until the rejections from editors started.
Oof. Those hurt.
My book had no plot. Not kidding. None.
My agent stuck with me. She was lovely. But then two years passed, more editors passed on another project, and my agent retired. I was without representation again, but I was okay with it. I’d been at the writing game long enough to know I wasn’t going to be published.
And still, writing called to me.
Maybe I wasn’t going to be published, but I still wanted to be part of publishing. I’d grown up without any books in my home, so maybe I was trying to fill some childhood desire to be surrounded by spines and spines and more spines.
So I answered an ad for an unpaid Literary Agency Intern. I would be volunteering my time. But I would be reading, talking, and discovering books alongside an agent, and maybe editors!
Each day after work, putting the kids to bed and the laundry to shelves, I read submissions. I was quickly on the “inside” reading query letters.
While training as an intern, I familiarized myself with the types of works agents were looking for and I jumped into the query pile each day. The very, very, very big query pile. Imagine a lot of queries arriving each day—then quadruple that number. When I came across a query that had a strong pitch and was something an agent was looking for, I forwarded it to the agent. The agent and I considered the first ten pages of the submission separately. We made and compared notes.
If a submission resulted in a request for partial or full pages, the agent and I would read and then exchange ideas. We discussed comparable titles. Did the voice engage us and not let up? Was it the type of story the agent thought she could sell, given her particular set of editorial contacts? Was it a story the agent was excited about given her particular literary tastes?
The best days were when the answer was yes to all of these questions. The agent would contact the author and offer representation. I wasn’t involved in the offers of representation (I never had any direct contact with the authors), but it always brought me great joy knowing a writer was getting “the call.”
There were some projects I fell in love with. Deeply. I wanted to see manuscripts become novels, but the agent felt differently. The agent needed to fall in love.
For querying writers, it’s hard to get the rejection that is some variation of: I just didn’t fully connect with the story or characters. This may seem like a form rejection, but I saw the way this really had to matter. An agent is there to champion a writer’s work. They have to connect with all aspects of the story, characters, and setting in order to continually support the project through all phases of development. It was hard knowing these writers would receive a rejection. I wished I could have told the authors how much I connected with their stories, that they should keep writing and not give up. But maybe that was because I was a writer, and I knew how important it was to receive encouragement while fielding rejections.
As my work continued, I edited manuscripts for existing clients across all genres—debut authors and New York Times bestsellers alike. Agents asked me to note where a story might need more development. Were there plot holes? What worked on the page? The agents I worked with encouraged me to be part of their team. They considered me a trusted colleague. They took the time to constantly thank me for my close reads and detailed feedback. And I witnessed just how special it was when a writer, manuscript, and agent found each other in that perfect literary storm that resulted in representation.
And somewhere in the after, after, after hours of work and interning, I wrote.
I read, critiqued, and edited manuscripts for two years without ever telling an agent that I was a writer. I didn’t want my desire to become a published author to infringe on the beautifully professional relationship I had built with my colleagues in New York. So I queried my new project to a few other agencies—just to test the waters. I got some bites; I got my hopes up. Then came the day when I submitted editorial notes on a manuscript and the agent I worked most closely with told me I should be a writer.
I confessed I was.
She asked to see a manuscript.
I shared one. She loved it. She told me where it might need work. She started talking to editors about my project. I put the project aside, adopted another child.
Then, at some point in the chaos of an over-demanding life, I finished my revisions and sent the reworked manuscript to the agent. Not “my” agent—I hadn’t signed with her; she was just looking at the project.
She asked me if I was okay to go on sub with my novel.
I was prepared to settle in for a long wait. I was prepared for rejection. But the book sold in only a few weeks.
I signed with my agent.
I signed with Simon & Schuster.
A year and a half later my book was on shelves at Barnes & Noble.
But none of that would have happened if I hadn’t interned as a lit agency reader. As I was reading submissions, I became skilled at seeing where writers buried plot under too much backstory. Used too many “info dumps.” Filled the manuscript with “telling” instead of “showing.”
I was able to return to my work-in-progress with honed, critical eyes. I removed my info dumps. Heightened the stakes for my main character. Made sure there was a plot. (That’s still a tricky one for me.)
And somewhere between the reading and the writing and the parenting and the dreaming, a real book was born. And then two. And then a short story in an anthology on adoption. My then six-year-old is now a fifteen-year-old who just completed a freshman book report on my sophomore novel. He is anxiously awaiting the release of the adoption anthology in the way every reader’s heart quickens at the chance to discover a story that mirrors their own.
Looking back on my very windy road to publication, I think maybe rejection was the best thing for me in those early—albeit brutal—query stages. Rejection made me want to work harder, which is really what my writing needed. And shortly after my debut was published, I learned that there were people who didn’t particularly like my story or my writing. But even that newest form of rejection felt okay, because the readers who didn’t like my book were going to like other books. They would keep reading, buying, and recommending books—and that, for me, is what this industry is all about.
Then there were the readers who did like my book. Some who truly loved it enough to send fan mail telling me that my book might help save kids. Their words reminded me to honor the little six-year-old boy who saved my writing nine years ago. The boy who managed to believe in dreams, despite everything.
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