Paper Submissions and Positive Rejections

Posted on 30th August, 2015

In the middle of April, I started submitting a novel to literary agents. It took the best part of a month to put the basic submission letter together and each submission was then tweaked according to the requirements of each agent.

To start with, I did four submissions by email. I received two standard rejections – indeed, one was so standard that it applied to non-fiction writers as well as writers of fiction. One agent never replied, though, in fairness, she did say on her website that if you haven't heard after six weeks, it's because she is not interested. The fourth agent simply never responded.

I then did four submissions the old-fashioned way. Is it me, or does it feel better to produce a physical submission? To me, it felt more satisfying to have a paper document to send through the post; and I'm sure they're easier on the eye when it comes to reading them.

What happened to my paper submissions? There were four of them. One received a standard rejection; the others got personal replies. Two were what my good friend Jen Gilroy calls “positive rejections” - that is, a rejection letter that includes positive comments on your work. It's funny how something can be disappointing and give you a boost at the same time.

The other personal reply? Well, yes, it was another rejection; and, yes, it was positive, but it then went on to pick the book's opening to pieces. And you know what? That was the most positive thing of all – because, since I had started sending out my submissions, I had come to realise the beginning of the book wasn't right.

I don't want to make it sound as if I belted out a novel at top speed and submitted the first draft. Far from it. The book took around a year to write and the original version went through the RNA New Writers Scheme, in which it was put forward for a second read. I left it for some time, so I could edit with fresh eyes; and then I left it again before embarking on what turned out to be a major overhaul.

But whereas other areas of the book were substantially edited, the beginning remained largely untouched. Then, around the time I sent out my paper submissions, I began to realise that the book's opening wasn't right – which is why, having made those four paper submissions, I didn't send out any more.

And the comments from the last agent – a brutal list of what was wrong with the book's opening – supported what I had been thinking.

So for this novel, it's back to the editing desk.

How about you? How do you cope with rejection letters? Have you had positive rejections and how did they make you feel? And – oh, yes, I have to ask – am I alone in enjoying the paper submission simply because it's a physical thing and not a formless message that vanishes into the ether? Do tell!

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Comments (9)

Thanks for sharing all your thoughts, Jen. You're right, of course - the most important thing is to keep trying, no matter how downhearted you might sometimes feel. No book ever got accepted by being left languishing in a drawer. I hope you won't need the ice cream for much longer!
Oh, the positive rejections! So close, but yet still so far.

The best 'positive' rejection is the one you described, Susanna, where the agent or editor 'is generous to take the time to give you constructive feedback which you can use to address the issue.

As for the worst? For me, it's when an agent or editor likes almost everything about the submission's still not a yes. Perhaps the manuscript is too similar to something already on the publisher's list, or they just didn't relate enough to the characters. The latter is especially hard because it's subjective and not something I can fix by edits or working on my craft.

For coping with rejection, it's ice cream all the way. Then I pick myself up and try again, repeating to myself that the difference between a published and unpublished writer is that the former didn't stop trying.

I'm an electronic submission person, although I then jump each time an email pings in my inbox!

Thanks for another helpful post, and I echo your comments about the RNA NWS. For everyone who is thinking of joining, get your name in for 2016!
Moira, how lovely to hear from you. Thanks for your comments. I'm delighted to hear you're hoping to join the NWS next year. Be prepared to press 'send' on the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. The good news is, that once you're in, you will automatically be offered a place the following year (unless of course, you get a huge publishing deal and don't need it!). LLs are the best! xx
Great blog Susanna, and it raises an interesting point about paper submissions. I have submitted to about 15 agencies, (all electronic) received 3 automatic acknowledgements, one request for a full MS, and 2 polite and encouraging rejections. Still waiting for any further comment about the full MS submission but assume after all this time (8 weeks) the answer will be no. Apart from that 9 submissions have gone off into the ether. At least with paper submissions you would know if they got there!!! I'll try and join the RNA NWS next year but I understand there's a lot of competition! Have a great week #LL's rock!
Thank you, Wendy, for reading my blog and commenting on it. You were enormously fortunate to be picked up by both agencies in #PitchCB and, while the end result was rejections, I am delighted to hear that one of them was a positive rejection. I know exactly how it feels to get one of those. I'm glad too that you feel you will be able to put this experience to good use later on.
One of the features of writing is that, whatever stage you are at, you always take an active interest in what is to come. Writers are so good at preparing themselves for each stage of the writing/editing/submission process and there is lots of advice out there, because writers in general are generous about sharing their experiences.

I hope you are able to join the RNA New Writers Scheme next year, as the feedback you will receive on your novel will be of enormous help to you.

Thank you for your comments, Jan. It's always good to hear from you.
This is such an interesting post, Sue. I'm not at the stage of sending my manuscript out to agents yet but writing the end of the first draft is in sight. I can only relate your comments about 'positive rejections' to when I've submitted short stories. When I've received a standard rejection, there's nothing that tells me why it's been rejected or what my story needs to improve. A positive rejection is one which helps you look at the story with a fresh pair of eyes. It's still a rejection but it helps you to reflect on your writing, I think. The fact that you came to the conclusion that the beginning wasn't right yourself and this was confirmed by the last agent, even though it was a brutal list, can only be a positive thing. Good luck now with editing the beginning of your novel!
BTW, if there's a choice, I always submit my stories in paper form. I don't think I'm particularly good at proof-reading on the screen.
This is such an interesting post, Sue. I'm not at the stage of sending my manuscript out to agents yet but can see that the end of the first draft is in sight. The editing will be a mammoth task, I know. I can only relate your 'positive rejection' comments to feedback I've had on short stories. If it's just a standard rejection, you don't know where to start looking at the story again but if there are helpful comments about how it maybe improved, you can at least look at how the story has been received by another pair of eyes. The fact that you came to the conclusion that the beginning of your novel wasn't right yourself and that was a point made by the last agent is really positive I think. Good luck with a new edit of the beginning!
I'm with you on paper submissions. If there's a choice, I always choose to print out my story and send it by post. I'm not very good at proof reading on the screen, I'm afraid.
This was so interesting to read, Susanna, as I am in the very early stages of this very same process. I've already sent the first three chapters out to three agents as I was lucky enough to be successful in #PitchCB and have received two rejections. Like you, one was a general one but one was so positive that it had me skipping round the room (strange when you've just been rejected!). As my novel isn't quite finished, I hadn't planned to submit so early but I've used the experience as practice for later. As for paper copies... oh no - emails for me e very time! Wishing you all the best with your novel - keep me posted. x