I wrote my first book in blissful ignorance of what awaited me. It took me about two years of drafting and editing, and when it was finished I entered a competition to win a 15 minute chat with legendary literary agent Caroline Sheldon. She was really kind about my first chapter and advised that I try querying for a year, then send out my submissions in batches of ten each month.
I’m quite a literal fellow. I did a bit more editing, but on 4th April 2017 I sent out my first submission ever. Plus the other nine Caroline had suggested. She’d said to go for it for a year so that was my goal; to query my weird book about a boy who woke up from a coma for a whole year.
The year wasn’t without joys, but what I heard the most that year was no.
I had three full manuscript requests and two of those agents requested a revise and resubmit. My story got much better because of their advice. Unfortunately, they both passed on it. I placed third in the Winchester Writer’s first chapter competition, which was thrilling. And all the while I kept sending out submissions.
I stumbled through to the end of the year, because that was what someone had told me to do and because I had decided that was my goal. In the end, I amassed a whopping 113 nos.
It was brutal. Receiving that amount of negative reaction does something to a person. The first few rejections hit hard. We all believe we are going to be THE ONE who sends out their story and every agent jumps at it. That dream was shattered very quickly. No became an answer I was hardened to receiving.
I took a break after submitting that first novel. I had to. I say I was hardened, but really I was rubbed raw. My story, the work from my heart, had gone out into the world and had been thrown right back at me. The advice from everywhere was not to take every no personally, but how could I not? I’d put so much into my story and no-one wanted it.
I started querying my second novel on 8th January 2019 and I didn’t last a year. It may have been because I didn’t have the same conviction behind this story as my first (which has proved right since I’m now totally revamping it!) but I think a lot of it was because I couldn’t face submitting for another year and being buried under another pile of nos. I stopped after 28.
I was still absolutely certain I wanted an agent. I wanted a champion for my work, someone who would love it like I did and who would fight in the tricky world of publishing to get me the best deal, but I knew now what a hard slog querying was. I couldn’t do that again unless I had 100% belief in my story.
So I wrote another one. This time I threw everything into the characters, made them as real and loveable as I could. I decided I would start querying in January 2020, since I had set myself the goal of querying for a year again and I like things to be neat. The previous nos weighed on me, but I knew I had to keep pushing through if I wanted this to happen.
And it did. It’s a tale for another time about how my story set at the end of the world about two boys and a cow got picked up by my wonderful agent, Rachel Mann. It has been months since Rachel first popped up on my Skype and told me that my story was making her feel “grabby”. It seemed too good to be true. I was so used to being told no, that a yes was unreal.
I think I will carry those nos with me for a long time. I’m still raw. I expect Rachel to ditch me. I read the email where she offered me representation A LOT to try and dispel this feeling, but I’m coming to realise that it’s going to take time. For years, all I heard was no, and that is hard and painful. I know I’m not the only one that feels this. I was feeling overly-emotional just after Jo Unwin announced Rachel had signed me, and sent this tweet:
This pain of being told no and no and no again is a shared one. Some people call it the querying trenches, and I think the thing to take away from that – apart from the shit and rats and bombs which can be metaphors for a whole host of things – is that soldiers were never in the trenches alone. Being told no can feel very isolating, but in the business of writing, rejection is unifying. We have ALL been told no. We all know how painful that is.
Some practical advice:
- Make nos manageable. If I could have a do-over, I would have had a separate email address to submit to agents from. I would not have checked that email unless I was sitting comfortably, one hand around a mug of coffee, one hand on the soft head of my dog. As it was, I was confronted by nos all over the place. I checked my email just before work, during parties, before I went to sleep. This was a stupid thing to do. Please try to be more disciplined than I was.
- Treat yourself. One friend of mine put £5 in a jar every time she got a no. After querying her first book, she went on holiday. Frankly, I couldn’t afford to do this. From my first novel alone, I would have put £565 in that jar. I did do nice things while querying though. Long walks with cake at the end. Pedicures. Nights out with many cocktails. Remind yourself that you are more than the nos you’re receiving by treating yourself well.
- Do something else. I wrote another book, but I know some people find that really hard. Find something else to focus on. Querying is a maddening thing that you have very little control over, so find something you can control. Cross-stitch, kayak, bake cakes. Do something to pull your gaze away from your inbox and onto the rest of your life.
I want to offer a little bit of encouragement if you feel like you are lost in the slush pile. Agents were recently tweeting about the amount of clients they’ve taken on from submissions. These are statistics that warm my soul.
And one final thing:
People are only going to keep saying no to you until one person says YES