If you are currently crawling and wriggling around in the query trenches, chances are the one word you despise with utmost passion is “rejection.” I get it. I’ve been rejected in every single way a querying writer can be rejected. With, of course, the exception of an agent showing up to my doorstep with a rejection letter in their hand a pie to hit me in the face with. That would be weird. (And illegal.)
Now, according to Etymonline’s online etymology dictionary, the word rejection comes from Latin reiectionem, which means “the act of throwing back.” Later on, the word took on other beautiful meanings such as “refusal to accept” or “eject, set aside or block from inheritance” or “throw away, cast away, vomit.” Apparently, in the 19th century, it could even mean “excrement.” No kidding.
However, before you imagine a mean agent with an evil smile looking at your query letter with demonic, red-colored eyes, and then vomiting on it (or worse!) allow me to share my story of rejection. Through living my rejection story, I have learned a thing or two.
I first started writing on a whim when I was bored as a resident doctor in the final year of my residency back in 2019. We were in a fancy hotel for a conference that day. It was the first day of the last year before I could be free from the years of non-stop studying for exams and taking crap (aka rejection?) from doctors in senior positions who were training me. I was supposed to be feeling elated at the prospect of graduating in a year’s time and finally being able to call the shots of my own life.
But instead of boring my brain to death with more medical lingo, I snuck out of the conference room, found a nice sofa under a gorgeous, sprawling chandelier in a quiet corner of the hotel, and began to type away in MS Word. At the time, I thought I was the next Shakespeare and that if my writing were a painting, it would definitely be a Botticelli (if not a fresco by Michelangelo.) Looking back, yeah my writing was utter crap. I’m glad I self-rejected those pages of writing. But the important thing was, I kept writing.
Then, somewhere in early 2021, I actually, somehow, miraculously managed to finish an entire book. But I had no idea what to think of it. So when I decided to query it for the heck of it and got a – wait for it – FULL REQUEST on my very first query, you bet I was over Jupiter’s moons. Not only that, I was convinced I’m the next Botticelli of the writerly world.
Boy was I wrong…
While I waited for the first full request to be answered, I decided to query more agents, seeing as I was basically Botticelli re-incarnated. And that’s when the gods of writing decided it was time I tasted rejection hell. Yep. I got rejected in all sorts of ways imaginable. Radio silence. Form rejection. Mass email cc’ed to a billion fellow author rejectees. Sort-of-personalized rejection. Personalized rejection. Super-personalized rejection.
That full request? Yeah, it also became a rejection. The worst part was, the rejections would come at the worst possible times and in the sneakiest of ways. For months, I had been checking my Gmail inbox multiple times a day (including the very first thing in the morning i.e. as soon as my eyes would snap open, I’d toil around under my pillow for the iPhone.) I would take a deep breath in and mentally prepare myself for another rejection. Yet the inbox would always be annoyingly blank. But whenever I’d check my email as an after-thought or on auto-pilot, not really thinking about writing or rejection (and thus not mentally prepared for it), there it was: a brand new query reply with the preview reading “thank you sending us your manuscript.” In total, I exceeded over 100 rejections.
Through all this whirlwind of rejection, though, I did get a revise and resubmit request. Once again, I was over the moon (this time Neptune’s). And then the R and R also turned into a rejection. Then I re-wrote it completely, re-queried without invitation to do so, and the agent was super happy to get an unsolicited revision and he seemed so hopeful from our email communications, and then yep. Rejected again. This time with a rather cold “this is not for me.”
Next, I began to query publishers directly, at least those who accepted unagented submissions. And guess what? I got more rejections!
Now, my memory of querying my current MS in 2022 is rather fuzzy due to the burnout and “rejection fatigue” but I had somehow managed to re-query yet another agent who had previously passed with – I don’t know – the sixth or seventh draft of my novel. And he seemed very interested this time. In fact, he sent me a freaking nine-page novella on all the areas that needed work as part of his R and R.
And so I stopped moping and got back to work. I wrote and re-wrote. And I enlisted the help of my wonderful writerly friends. I was convinced I’ve written the best version of this book I can write. I fired it off with a lot of hope in my heart and my fingers tightly crossed until my knuckles turned white. (Seriously though, if you have “knuckles turning white” listed anywhere in your ms, delete it now).
Two weeks later, I got an email that took my breath away (while I also had COVID, which was also taking my breath away, but in a different way).
The email read, “Hi Ahmad, let’s talk over the phone. What time are you free?”
AN AGENT WANTED TO TALK TO ME OVER THE PHONE!!! We all know what that’s supposed to mean, right?
Yeah, it was another rejection. A phone call rejection is not what I was expecting but it was uplifting and the agent was just a boss when it comes to being good-hearted and awesome, and he said he’d be open to yet another revision.
Anyways, you see the pattern. Every single inch of the road to publication is paved with rejection. I refuse to believe there’s a single author in this world who hasn’t faced rejection in some way. It’s a normal phenomenon in the writing journey. My sincerest advice is to get comfortable with the idea of rejection, regardless of how good you believe your writing is, because it will still happen to you.
I wouldn’t think of rejection as a “bad” thing though. Without rejection, I would never have humbled up. I would not have kept writing. And I would not have levelled up. Yes, I’ve been rejected in every single way, but with time, the types of rejection kept getting better (if that makes sense). They became more and more personalized and clearly indicated that I was on the right track.
On a final note, we could all use a reminder that rejection also exists outside of writing. I was your prototypical “Type A” gunner who had his head buried in science textbooks, the kind of guy who’d give up a kidney to get into medical school. Prior to that point in my life, I had never failed at anything I did, especially when it came to grades and school. When I received my first ever rejection letter from medical school admissions committee, my entire perception changed. I humbled up. I grew from it. And I worked harder. The results followed. Most importantly, that very first rejection shattered the notion that I was somehow supposed to get it “right” on the first attempt. When that notion shattered, I experienced the most amazing feeling ever: relief.
So, dear writer friend. If you received yet another rejection on your query today, consider doing this: Put aside your phone or laptop. Take a deep breath in. And soak in that feeling of relief. You’re not supposed to get this right on the first, attempt. Or the second. Or even the twentieth.
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