5 Things My 600 Rejections Taught Me
I’m the 600 rejections guy. Yepp, that’s not a typo. 600. But I recently accepted my first offer of representation. I learned a lot on my journey to find a literary agent. Here are 5 things my 600 rejections taught me.
Submission Length: 25 months (1/27/17 - 2/17/19)
Editors or Publishers: 8
Maybe or Revise/Resubmit Request: 2
SCBWI MEMBERSHIP IS A GAMECHANGER
Shortly after I stumbled upon the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I attended a workshop and was hooked. That Christmas, my parents ended up giving me a year’s membership as one of my gifts. What a practical gift for any kid lit writer! Being a member of SCWBI sets you apart from writers who aren’t. Membership looks great on your query bio, especially if you’re a total newbie like me and have no other publication credits.
Can you get an agent, or sell a book without being a member? Sure. But you’re far more likely to set yourself up for success if you are. Membership in SCBWI gives you access to print and online information from industry professionals, provides a built-in community of support, offers professional development, events, workshops and conferences, and opens occasional doors to submit to agents and publishers who normally don’t accept unsolicited submissions. That’s just to name a few.
For me, everything changed when I joined SCBWI. If you’re a writer who wants to invest in your career and take your craft to the next level, I cannot recommend this organization more highly.
Another game changer was the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. This was the first place I ever found agents and agencies. There’s also great articles, interviews, contests, publisher info, and so much more.
IF YOU’RE NOT IN A CRITIQUE GROUP, YOU’RE WASTING YOUR TIME
Probably more important than joining SCBWI was when I started actively participating in a critique group. Being in a critique group, swapping manuscripts, and letting others get eyes on your work is not just important, it’s non-negotiable. I’d go as far as to say that if you don’t have a critique partner or if you aren’t letting people speak into your work and you’re on submission...STOP. BACK AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. DO NOT SEND ANOTHER STORY!
We are all blind to our strengths and weaknesses, and we all get story blind. If you are the only one reading your work, you’re essentially spinning circles like Sound of Music Julie Andrews on a hillside of confirmation bias. Or maybe you’re dancing in an echo chamber. These examples are getting strange. The point is, I have learned more about writing from my various critique groups than I ever have from reading a book, or attending a workshop, or reading some guy’s blog about how he learned stuff after getting rejected 600 times. So go join a critique group. NOW. Don’t have anywhere to go? Start one! You don’t even have to meet in person. Email manuscripts. This is an absolute must and I am so appreciative of all the people who took this journey with me and got my stories to where they are today.
FOCUS ON STORY NOT SUBMISSIONS
Querying isn’t like fishing with dynamite. It’s not arbitrarily blasting a shotgun at a flock of geese, hoping to snag one. Querying should be intentional. Laser focused. Specific. It takes patience. Good timing.
For most agents, rejecting an author once or twice doesn’t mean you can never query them again. But it also doesn’t mean you should submit all 5 of your manuscripts to them at once. Or in the same week. Wait a little bit. Be ready and eager to send without fear, but don’t be so eager that you have agents tell you never to send them stuff again. They are people. You can annoy them. I learned the hard way to slow down on submissions and focus more on the stories themselves. On revision.
There’s so much to do while you wait. Focus on making it perfect. Put it through round after round with different critique sessions. Yes, it’s frustrating if you feel like you have multiple stories ready to go. If that really is the case and they like what they read, they’ll ask you to send more work to get a better feel for your style and voice. That’s how I got my agent, but she didn’t bite until the third submission. So don’t be afraid to get back on the horse and submit again...after at least a month or two.
KNOCK UNTIL THE DOOR OPENS
Give yourself permission to fail. Give yourself permission to fail. GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO FAIL. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough. A rejection is evidence that you tried and you should feel good about that. But over time, relentless rejection starts to hurt. Especially if you mistakenly equate your identity with your work.
You are not your work. You are not your stories.
You may be thinking, “I’ll do this until I get 100 rejections. If I get 100 rejections, that’s the universe telling me I’m a terrible writer and I don’t have any business doing this.” Okay...but with that logic, literally any number you can think of that is a “sign” you aren’t cut out for this is arbitrary. I got 600 rejections, but I still got an agent. If I had gotten a thousand rejections, the outcome would be the same. So what is a number? Who cares if it’s 10, or 50, or a million?
If you keep knocking and you’re learning and growing, eventually someone will open a door. The only way it won’t happen is if you give up. Maybe the difference between getting an agent or not is only one submission. When you only need to make one basket, why not take 600 shots?
PAY ATTENTION & STAY UP TO DATE
The industry is fluid. Word counts go in trends. Some agents only like picture books with 300 words. Some say they accept manuscripts for picture books, but what they mean is they are only looking for an author-illustrator. A lot of this you learn as you go. You learn because you get rejected and find out they actually aren’t taking on new clients...why doesn’t your website say that!?
Maybe an agent moves agencies. Or maybe they only accept manuscripts as attachments. Or maybe they only accept submissions from referrals. There are a ton of things to pay attention to and you HAVE to be organized and listen to observe it all. Social media (Twitter in particular) is helpful to spot things as they come up.
Agents who are just starting out and actively building their list are little diamonds of opportunity. Maybe they just got promoted to Associate Agent. Timing is everything so be on the lookout!
Helpful Places to Watch:
New Agent Alerts
Okay, so now I have an agent. Do I have a book deal? NOPE! That means my number of rejections will begin to grow as publishers and editors pass on the books we try to sell.
So I hope I can remember what I’ve learned over the past two years. There’s power in perseverance and a number is just a number...not a reflection of your worth.
Perhaps I’m only getting warmed up…
Brian Gehrlein is newly represented by Associate Agent, Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency. He is excited to get to work and start this new chapter in his author life!
Like this post? Subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight! This coming Monday, March 4th we have an interview AND GIVEAWAY opportunity with author-illustrator Daniel Miyares! Keep it real, kid lit fam!