What I Learned From 52 Rejections

A couple weeks ago, I suggested people query their first novel, even though it would probably get rejected. I said this because I think you can learn a lot from querying even a bad novel, and your reputation as an author will be none the worse for it.

Can I put my money where my blog is? Well, yes. Some of you may recall that I queried my first novel and that query got 52 out of 52 rejections.

So what did I learn?

1) I learned how to write a query letter. My first query really, really sucked. But by the end of that query round, I'd done a ridiculous amount of research and revision and actually got professional feedback that my final query did not suck (though the opening pages did).

And if you're thinking you don't have to write a query because you're self-publishing, think again. The back-cover copy you have to write for every book-selling site is essentially the same thing.

2) I can do this. The feedback I got -- a little from professionals but mostly from other aspiring authors -- was encouraging. It told me that, even though I wasn't there yet, I could be.

3) I WANT this. While my query was out, I spent a lot of time online trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, how to make it better, how to write, what my publishing options were. And at some point during all of that, I realized I really, REALLY wanted to be a part of this world.

4) If I want it, I have to keep writing. I can't learn by waiting for 52 rejections or for the responses of beta readers who might never get back to me. I can't learn if I'm spending all my time on promotion. The only sure way for me to learn is to write (and revise) something new.

Could I have learned these same things by self-publishing that monstrosity first novel? Probably. I have no doubt that's the path others have taken. Maybe those first novels with 200 sales are a badge of pride for some people, like my 200 rejections are for me. Maybe that's the motivation they need. But for me, it would've felt like quitting.

Have you written more than one novel? What did you do with your first one? What did you learn?


Matthew MacNish said...

I'm still querying that first novel, but I'm quite glad I've finally found the motivation to move onto something new. I'm not going to say it's better, because I'm still drafting, but it's definitely different.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

And if you're thinking you don't have to write a query because you're self-publishing, think again. The back-cover copy you have to write for every book-selling site is essentially the same thing.

This is so true. The first novel I wrote will never be published. The first novel I published, I never queried! But the first novel I queried still sits on my hard drive - the (at least stated) reason why it was rejected didn't have anything to do with the characters or plot or writing. Agents/editors just didn't think they could sell a middle grade science fiction with lots of tech in it. I was asked by an editor to revise/resubmit if I was willing to change it to be more like A Wrinkle in Time - because she knew she could sell that! Except that wasn't the kind of story I had written (or wanted to write).

Someday I'll haul it out, revise it, and let the world decide if they want to buy it.

Nancy Thompson said...

I could have written this post. My story is so similar, except for second novel part. I was too stubborn to move on. I just applied all I learned to the first one & eventually got a deal. But as hard as that experience was, as demoralizing, I wouldn't have it any other way. It taught me so much I never could have learned otherwise & I made so many writer friends along the way. And it makes the victory that much sweeter, too. Great post, Adam. Thanks so much for sharing it!

Sarah Ahiers said...

Well, i didn't query my first completed novel, mostly because i didn't finish revisions on it. But i DID query the next one. And it's not a terrible novel by a long shot, but i also learned almost everything you did. #3 especially. Also i learned that rejections are a great motivator, because the only way to stop getting the rejections is to put your head down and keep writing and getting better

Rena said...

I've talked about the learning curve before, and I think it's great. I'm also a big fan of practice. And let's face it, those first rejections are brutal, but it's good to get them out of the way early. And that practice makes easier down the road.

I didn't query my absolute first novel (hey, I was twelve, I didn't know about querying, or surely it would have graced the mailboxes of agents). But the first novel I did query was full of problems. All the rejection. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything, though I would have loved a deal right out of the gates. I learned much more about craft by trying to fix that book, than anything else I've done so far.

sally apokedak said...

I queried my first novel to six agents and editors, simultaneously. Got three requests for fulls. Nothing came of those requests and I didn't query more widely because I knew the novel was broken. I knew in my heart that I didn't like it, so I couldn't sell it.

I queried my second novel widely, got many requests for fulls, got several requests for revisions, got an agent, went to pub-board at one place, had another editor ask me to send chapters of my next book as I wrote it, had another editors tell me this was the book that was going to break me in because it had it all.

Mostly, what matters is that I loved the book and I'm convinced it will sell.

In the end, it has not sold. I'm convinced this is because I was too late getting it out. Editors had Hunger Games and Divergent on the brain and though my book is nothing like those two books, they couldn't stop comparing it to those.

I am now without an agent again, finishing up my third novel, which I will again submit widely. Two agents have asked me to send it when it's done, so I feel like I have a leg up. I figure I'm getting faster, and one of these days I'll have a good novel and I'll get it in at the perfect time and all the stars will align...

S.P. Bowers said...

Excellent post. I'm currently querying and while it's not my first novel, it's the first one I've taken through all the stages of editing and the first one I've queried. I've had a lot of feedback on my query and even had an agent say it was a good query pitch at a workshop. But it is so easy to get discouraged. So far I'm three form rejections for three queries. Yea, it's not a lot but it does tend to get one down. I love the list of things you learned. Thanks for the boost in my spirits.

Rachel said...

I did query my first novel, and very quickly received a full request. Although, I think my query wasn't great, and the agent just liked the idea of the story.

My 2nd ms, I've sent many queries. And I think I've finally got a great query, which got agent interest, and then I realized my first chapter needed work. :)

So, now I'm fixing a few things with the ms, and hoping with a new great query and a polished first chapter it may actually garner some interest. :)

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I half-heartedly queried my first attempt at a novel. I looked at it as a learning experience. After a round of rejections, I had my new novel ready to query. Or so I thought. I thought I had it all figured out. I thought I had a great query. I thought I had a polished novel to send out. HAH! Eight months and two major revisions later, I once again think that novel is ready to go out. At the very least, I know it's vastly improved from what it was before. We'll see how polished the agents I send it off to think it is.

Myrna Foster said...

My first novel is hanging out until I figure out how to fix it. I did send out one query, but I was relieved when the agent sent me a rejection. I'll get serious about writing my query for the second one (TBW) in two or three weeks (right after I send it off to my CP in Thailand). Thanks for being patient with me. I'd like to say that all this time has made it beautiful, but I've added 10K to its word count this month. It probably still needs some tough love. ;o)

Having CPs who queried three or four novels before signing with an agent tends to make one cynical about getting lucky with that first or second novel. But that might be a good thing if it keeps me from sending stuff that isn't ready.