Why Your Story Got Rejected

Please note the title says “your story,” not “you.” When agents send you a rejection letter (or worse, a form rejection letter that’s been photocopied so many times the paper looks gray), they are not rejecting you as a person. It’s incredibly hard to not take these letters personally, but if you’re going to be a writer, you’ll have to get used to rejection letters.

When you get one in the mail, it hurts. Allow yourself time to grieve. Fifteen minutes ought to do it. Then move on with life. Have a cup of coffee, or a bucket of ice cream, or a cookie–it’ll help you feel better. Then get back to business.

There’s a reason your story was rejected, although most agents don’t bother to tell you why they chose not to go with yours. Some of these reasons can be identified if you’ll look closely. For instance, if you sent your horror story to an agent who only represents romance, then it’s a pretty sure bet your story was rejected because it was the wrong genre. That’s an easy fix: find an agent who represents horror and send a query. If you sent a 120,000 word western to someone who represents westerns, it’s obvious that the word count is entirely too large. (Note: if you wrote a 120,000 word long story, it’d better be fantasy, because no other genre will put up with something that long.)

Sometimes the writing isn’t as good as it could be. The mechanics are bad (you put in too many commas, or not enough commas, or forgot to indent every paragraph…). Or the storyline is boring. Or the protagonist is a wimp. Or the antagonist is too weak. The only way to identify these types of problems is to farm your story out to beta readers you trust or to a professional (see the post from last week about professional editors). Again, this problem is fixable, but it’ll take work and maybe some cash. You can improve your writing techniques, edit the story, and send out a new query.

Your problem might be bigger than mechanics or characters. If your plot is predictable, or boring, or unbelievable, you may have to give up on that story and start over. There’s nothing wrong with this option. Most writers never see their first efforts in print. However, if you just can’t bring yourself to let go of the story, even something as huge as a predictable plot can be fixed. Re-structure the story making stronger motivations, higher stakes, and believable outcomes.
Another problem your story might have is an overbearing theme. If you’ve used your story to preach your pet cause, it’s almost guaranteed you won’t sell it. People read stories to be entertained, not to have their beliefs challenged or ridiculed. Your book might give readers a powerful emotional experience, but if that emotion is revulsion or offense or rage, no agent will want that story. There’s no easy fix for this one, and you might have to scrap the story.

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with the writing, or the genre, or the word count, and your story is still rejected. Agents have hundreds of manuscripts to read through every day, and if they find a story they love, they’ll pursue it. If they found it nice, or interesting, or likable but didn’t LOVE it, then they pass. You can’t know who will connect with your story enough to represent it, so the only option available to send out multiple queries.
I’ve heard of authors who throw away every rejection letter. Others only save the ones that actual correspondence from an agent (as opposed to a form letter sent out by an intern). Some authors save every rejection slip they get. I’m in that last camp. I even keep a record of every agent I’ve submitted to, when I sent the query, when they responded to me (if they don’t respond to me, they just might find another query from me in their in-box next year), and what that response was. To date, all the responses I’ve gotten have been “no thanks, not for me.” I’m hopeful that someday I’ll get a response from an agent that’s a request for representation. Until that day comes, I will continue to hone my craft, write compelling stories that offer a powerful emotional response, and query every agent on the planet. Hopefully, they’ll begin to recognize my name when they open their queries email folder and feel the need to meet this persistent author who can’t take NO for an answer.

-Sonja

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One thought on “Why Your Story Got Rejected

  1. Dear Sonja, Hi. I identify with this post on rejection. It’s a part and parcel of a writer’s life. The aim should be to keep writing and getting better with each story. Best of luck to you, and to all those who are on this journey of publication.

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