The journey so far – part 2: how to interpret agent feedback

Sometime around November / December 2013, I looked at my MS and came to the decision that it was about as ready as I could possibly make it (without bringing in the professionals).  The question was: a) whether to seek that professional help straight away; or b) test the waters by querying some agents.  If they rejected me based on my writing, then I’d go back to my resources and learn to write better.  If they rejected me based on my project, then I’d seek a professional critique.  (If they didn’t reject me at all – I would run out into the garden, turn on the sprinkler and dance around like a five year old kid.  But I was determined to go into the process with realistic expectations).

Here are my stats (I initially kept track via a spreadsheet but then I discovered QueryTracker:   – a great website that helps you track queries, research agents in your genre etc.)

No. of agents queried: 31

No. of rejections: 25

No. still out: 6 (I’m not holding my breath though)

No. of form rejections: 19

No. of personal rejections: 6

Taken at face value, these stats look pretty dismal.  After all, I’ve been rejected, right?  So it may sound crazy to say that I found the process really helpful and encouraging.

Let me explain why.

The form queries didn’t tell me a lot – but at least they were polite and apologetic.

When I received a personal rejection though, I got really excited.  First of all, I trawled through the internet looking for a tool to help me crack the code of agent-speak.  I found what I was looking for in the following posts: how to interpret rejection letters from agents and slushkiller.

Then I set about deciphering my own letters.  Here are some examples of the key phrases:

While we found your writing engaging, we feel this project is not a good fit for us.

I can see how much you have invested in this, but this project in particular is not for me.

Your writing has many charms, but I’m not connecting with it as much as I would hope.

Looking at them together, a recurring theme emerged: we like your writing, but not your project.  I took this as a positive.  I was getting something right!  All I needed to do was put the right project under their nose and they would be mine.  Ah yes *insert evil laugh here*  they would be mine!

So I found myself at a fork in the road.  Should I: a) write this project off and start a new project; or b)  invest in a professional critique and decide after that whether the project was still worthwhile.  I took option b).  More about that next time but in meantime…

Lessons Learned / Questions and Answers

1. Do you query your dream agent list first, or save them for later?  After I had sent out my queries (querying my dream agents first)  I read that it is a good strategy to query your plan B agents first.  Why?  The rationale was that if your query letter doesn’t get a nibble or two, then you can revise and hone your querying skills (or your MS, depending on the feedback)  before targeting your dream agents.  There’s some merit in this approach.  There’s no doubt my query letters improved as I went along.  And as it turns out, my MS is unlikely to hook an agent (dreamy or not) without some serious revising.  But that said, I think there are also some advantages to querying your dream agents first.

First of all: they are the ones you want.  If you do have a great MS and query letter – then you want to hook the best agent for you.  

Secondly: As one agent has said: “Agents remember more than you think they do.  There is nothing to stop you resubmitting following a significant rewrite.”  Once I’ve done my rewrite, I’m definitely going to resubmit to the agents who gave me personal feedback.  If they took the time to say they liked my writing, then I know I’ve made a connection with them on some level.

2. Was querying agents before seeking a professional critique the right thing to do?   For me I think it was the right choice.  When the professional critique arrived, it echoed the agent replies. So I was prepared for the feedback and ready for action.

In summary: my first query round was actually (and surprisingly!) an invigorating experience.  I would recommend it.  Just learn what you can from the process and try not to take the rejection personally.  Good luck!


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Alison Whipp

Lawyer. Writes Middle Grade and YA. Known to cackle raucously at 13 y.o. boy-humour. Partial to baked goods of the sweet variety.
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