A Rejection Survival Toolkit
by Brian Mercer
Anyone who's queried an agent or an editor has likely experienced
it. You're walking out to your mailbox, anticipating a package, a
magazine, perhaps the occasional, cherished letter, and there it
is: That familiar white rectangle; your self-addressed stamped
envelope--your little carrier pigeon has come home. And while it
can be the bearer of good news, dreams fulfilled, even continued
hope if the agent/editor shows interest, what's most likely sitting
in that harmless looking envelope is the dreaded rejection letter.
It's usually a simple form letter: “Thanks, but it's not right for
us,” but what it means, in essence, is "no." And at a core level it
means something more visceral. When we send out a query letter,
we're not just asking a question: "Can I send this manuscript to
you? Will you publish this?" It is something entirely more
profound. We are asking for our dreams to be fulfilled. Every
query letter equals Hope. Despite what we know of the odds, there
is nothing more optimistic than putting a query letter in the mail.
We know intellectually that this is folly. We know we're buying
lottery tickets. We know what's likely sitting in that return
envelope. Yet none of that prepares us for the metaphoric kick in
the gut that is the rejection letter. Anyone who does this long
enough builds up a Skinnerian association, until the mere sight of
your SASE is enough to send you reeling. Self-addressed stamped
envelope equals Hopes Dashed.
For me, in the early days, the instant I recognized my return
letter, I felt a very real sensation of dread that started at my
solar plexus and spread outward. I had to fight the inclination to
collapse on the couch, curl into a fetal position and sob,
inconsolable by family or pets. And that was before I even opened
Like anything that happens to you in life, the event itself matters
less than how you perceive it. The trick is to get past the
rejection letter and see it for what it is: a response to a question
and nothing more. The ultimate aim is to get through the query
process without growing so discouraged that you give up your
dreams. While it’s not always possible to propel instantly from
despair to enlightenment, there are some road-tested methods for
helping you along the way.
Over the years I've developed several techniques for making the
process of querying agents and editors as smooth and effortless as
possible. What follows is a rejection letter survival toolkit, or
what I like to call "Brian's Candy-Ass Methods for Pain Avoidance."
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Technique #1: Write Your Own Response
Most replies from agents and editors are form letters. By
necessity, with the amount of material they receive, there just
isn't time to personalize every response.
Most agents and editors have one form letter. Everyone gets the
same one. Its content, therefore, is meaningless.
Knowing this intellectually doesn't stop people (consciously or
unconsciously) from scrutinizing the letter for clues as to why they
were rejected. Everything comes into play--the letter's length, its
verbiage, the precision of the folding, the quality and clarity of
the photocopy. What subliminal message is being conveyed?
One way to circumvent the rejection letter is to bypass it
altogether. Instead of including a self-addressed stamped envelope
with your query letter, try creating a response card instead.
The response card resembles a postcard: On one side, your address,
the agent's return address, and a postage stamp. On the flip side,
print a few simple phrases and the space for a multiple-choice
answer. For example, something like this: "Thank you for querying
me about your novel, Flight of the Rain Pigs. (Please
circle desired answer.) a) Please send me the first ____
chapters. b) Please send me the first ____ pages. c) Please send
me the entire manuscript. d) I am not interested in seeing any
material at this time." Be sure to leave space for the agent or
editor to write comments.
The advantage of this method is that you will, in essence, receive
your own letter, which you can craft to sound as positive as you'd
like. The only thing you're liable to see from the agent/editor is
the response he or she has circled. And for the agent/editor, it's
much easier than fussing with a rejection letter. They simply mark
their answer and drop the card in the mail.
Creating an agent/editor response card is easy. All you need is a
computer, a good printer, some card stock, and a paper cutter. If
you find it easier, the cost to have them professionally printed is
Using this method doesn't mean that you won't come to dread seeing
your response card in your mailbox, but it does lessen the
anticipation of opening your returned SASE and having your
subconscious struggle to find significance in the agent/editor's
meaningless form letter. When you create your own response card,
you've whittled the reply down to the simple answer: "Yes" or "No."