Persevering Through the Process

by Jennifer March Soloway, agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc

Writing is hard; publishing is even harder. There is a lot of rejection in this business at every level, and agents get rejected all the time too. It takes guts, thick skin, and sheer tenacity to keep going. However, I don’t get discouraged; in fact, just the opposite.

Every time I get a rejection, I see it as an opportunity to learn more about the market and what works or doesn’t. If I am lucky enough to get feedback, I use it to strategize next steps. For example, maybe I need to rethink my submission list. Or maybe the project would benefit from a round of revision. Or maybe the project needs some key changes to better position it for the market. And in some cases, maybe we need to wait and try selling a different project first.

Seeing rejection as information gathering can also be applied to getting an agent, applying to a residency, or selling a book. No matter what stage of your writing career you happen to be in, you will face rejection. Maybe you can’t find an agent. Maybe your third book isn’t selling. Maybe you didn’t get accepted to a writer’s workshop. Maybe you just received the worst review ever—and it was from your critique group (who are supposed to be your friends).

With every rejection comes a choice: Do you keep going or do you give up?

The answer? Keep going! Don’t give up! The good news is writing is a skill one can learn and improve with practice. If you don’t achieve your goal right away, don’t look at it as failure. Don’t worry that you’ll never get there. You can and you will succeed if you persevere. The outcome isn’t always what we initially envision, but success is possible. The key is hard work and perseverance.

That’s not to say that rejection doesn’t hurt, because it does. Especially when you’ve been working forever on a project, and you thought you finally nailed it. Rejection can feel awful. It’s horrible. I don’t like getting rejected, and I hate to write rejections to writers. I want everyone to realize their potential and fulfill their goals.

When I first started working for our agency and reading queries, I thought a lot about what worked, what didn’t, and why or why not. Because we receive so many submissions, we don’t have that much time to spend on each one. We only get to see a small sample of the work, and we have to make a decision fast. I thought about what pulled me into a story and why.

Some submissions are easy no’s. For example, if someone sends me a non-fiction proposal for an adult book about economics—a category I don’t represent—I’m going to pass. And some are easy yes’s. If I love it right away, I’ll request a full.

For those projects that do fall within our agency scope, nearly everything has potential, but 95 percent of the projects I receive are at too early a stage for me to consider representation. The drafts tend to be too raw and in need of more work. Often, I can tell the author is still writing to discover, or if they have discovered the end, they have yet to rework the beginning and middle.

But what about the “yes” manuscripts? What makes them stand out in a sea of submissions? Over the last four years, I’ve realized the projects that captured my interest had at least three of the six following traits:

  • A dynamite opening line (or lines).
  • A strong, engaging voice.
  • An intriguing premise that somehow feels different from anything else I’ve seen.
  • An opening scene filled with drama that has enough context to immediately ground me in the world and pull me into the story.
  • An irresistible character with high stakes and agency.
  • An additional story thread that is also compelling.

And the really great ones have all of the above.

So, say you’ve queried me, and you didn’t have a great first line. In fact, the story really doesn’t get going until page 15. It’s been eight weeks, you haven’t heard from me, and based on our submission guidelines, you know no answer after six weeks means no.  Worse, you queried ten other agents, and you haven’t heard back from anyone.

The bad news is I only get to see the first 10 pages. The majority of your novel might be brilliant, but if the first 10 pages aren’t working, I will never know.

The good news is I only get to see the first 10 pages. If I pass, and you rewrite those first 10 pages and resubmit in six months. I might read the project in an entirely new way. I might think your revision is amazing. It might be the same project, but if you rewrite it, I may love the new version and offer representation.

Revision can be magical. You will get there. Keep writing. Keep fighting the good fight.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Read. But don’t just read, read like an editor. Think about what works and why. Think about what doesn’t work, why it doesn’t work, and what it would take to make it better. Do this with every story you read, watch or hear.
  • Share your work with others. Listen to their suggestions. Try to find other people who can give you constructive feedback. Editorial feedback is an art, and it is often hard for others to communicate why something isn’t working. Listen to their feedback anyway. If they find something confusing but cannot articulate what or why, think about how you could clarify the piece.
  • Read other people’s drafts. You will recognize in their writing the same mistakes you are making but cannot see in your own work. Think about what might resolve the issues you see and how that writer might elevate the work. The same editorial suggestions might also help your own projects.
  • Go to conferences and workshops and literary events. Meet as many agents and editors as you can. Note what they like and don’t like. Listen to their advice. Pay attention to their style: how they present themselves, and how they interact with others. Think about who might be the best fit for you.
  • Allow yourself to experience the process and make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes. You will grow and evolve and improve, I promise!
  • If you get feedback from an agent (or an editor or reader), consider what they are saying. Literature is so subjective, and what one person loves, another person might loathe. However, if you get the same feedback from more than 2-3 people, think about how you might address the issue they raise, and consider revising accordingly.
  • Take your time to revise. If you receive a revise and resubmit request, that means the agent or editor sees potential in your project but feels the draft needs more work. Trust me, they won’t ask you to revise and resubmit unless they like it.
  • Most of all, celebrate and enjoy your victories, the large and the small. If you write a great scene, celebrate. If you find that perfect phrase, celebrate. If you think of a dynamite plot twist, celebrate. If you get an agent, celebrate. If you sell a book, celebrate. If a reader sends you fan mail, celebrate!

And if you still need an agent, query me.  If I pass, don’t feel like you’ve ruined your one big chance. With me, no means not yet. Revise and resubmit it to me in six months.

I might just fall in love with the story and offer you representation.

My MSWL page is here:

Details on how to submit to me can be found here:

For my latest conference schedule, craft tips and more, please follow me on Twitter: @marchsoloway




4 thoughts on “Persevering Through the Process”

  1. Thanks for your insight! What are the chances an agent will rep a novella in today’s market? I hear they are coming back in fashion. Your thoughts?

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