The Query Wars: The Truth, The Truly Bizarre and All That Lies in Between

I have a secret to handling rejections on queries, partials and fulls. It’s not Ben and Jerry’s. Nope. I  share my rejection letters with my trusted critique partner, the fabulous Kat Bender. She’s part of my tribunal in determining what to take away from each rejection letter. I thought you might enjoy a glimpse at excerpts from the rejection letters I’ve received lately.

Let’s start with my YA paranormal mystery, Reckonings

…Agent X has had a chance to review GHOST WHISPERER. Regrettably, he is taking on very few new clients at the moment and does not feel sufficiently excited about the manuscript to take it on…


Intern Q


…I don’t think I’m an ideal fit for RECKONINGS. I had trouble buying the tension between Kat and Evan, largely because I had trouble buying Evan. I’m a tough audience for British characters written by American authors anyway, but Evan felt less developed to me than the other characters.  I did like the voice…and the story at the heart of this book is compelling, but ultimately I didn’t feel that spark of connection that I need to feel to represent a project successfully…


Agent Z


…While I love the idea and am a fan of gothic mysteries, I’m afraid I’m not connecting enough with Kat on an emotional level to remain invested in the story. I’m sorry I can’t have better news, but I think in the end this is simply a matter of personal opinion and not a comment on your writing itself…


Agent A


Now onto The Six Train to Wisconsin rejections…

…Thanks for sending along the pages of your manuscript, THE SIX TRAIN TO WISCONSIN. Truth be told, though, I’m afraid these pages just didn’t draw me in as much as I had hoped…


Agent Q


…I find the story very interesting, and unique. I am having trouble wrapping my head around the story though  as I can’t answer this question:

 How is the husband able to get into his wife’s head to know when her suicidal tendencies are going to flare? I understand that she is a suicidal telepath, but how is her husband able to also sense this in his mind?
I found it hard to continue to read on not being able to answer this question and therefore must pass.
Agent N’s Assistant
…Though the husband is a valiant figure, we feel the piece has some problems: the language is melodramatic; the organization, a bit scattered; the content, somewhat redundant…
Agent L
Now onto the fun part–separating subjectivity from actual issues in the manuscripts that require further revision. 🙂
Have you received any rejections lately? Did they help you improve your manuscript or just leave you shaking your fist at the world?
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36 Responses to The Query Wars: The Truth, The Truly Bizarre and All That Lies in Between

  1. It’s so hard isn’t it to work out what comments will improve and what is subjective. I don’t think we can ever really know, just follow a gut instinct. But remember it’s a step in the right direction getting personal comments full stop!

    • Victoria, it’s the toughest skill to develop. My rule of thumb is whatever stings the most probably has the most truth to it. it’s definitely gut instinct. It is nice to get letters that don’t just say “not right for me.”

  2. Novel Girl says:

    Thanks for sharing despite the bad news. It’s good to get inside an agent’s head.

    Sounds like your characters need believable motivations, btw 🙂

    • I think you learn more from mistakes and successes. The weird thing about the critiques of my characters is that other agents have loved them. So I’m getting conflicting feedback on the characters. One agent who asked forrevisions actually said the best parts of the book were when Kat and Evan were in the scenes. But I’ll definitely take another look at the character motivations. 🙂

  3. interesting exercise. I haven’t submitted for a long time so I’ll have to give it some thought.

    • I think the hardest part is trying to isolate the why beneath the what. With the comment about redundant and scattered, I reread those pages specifically looking for those issues and found them. But a character not resonating could be completely subjective or weakness in the writing, something I’ll have to mull over. 🙂

  4. jmmcdowell says:

    Having never gotten this far, there’s nothing from my own experience that I can share. For your YA novel, it looks as though Agent A realizes personal interests have come into play—I don’t take anything concrete from that review regarding changes. Similarly with Agent X and even Agent Z. Z says s/he’s tough on American portrayal of British characters. But each of these agents seem to say mainly that the story didn’t resonate enough with them. It’s too small a sample to know if there is an underlying weakness or if it’s just the agents you queried.

    For the Six Train, I see some areas to consider, such as being sure you’ve clearly portrayed how the husband can sense the wife’s telepathy (from Agent N). Some of Agent L’s comments could come down to personal opinion, but it might be worth having a trusted beta read the manuscript to see if s/he agrees with any of Agent L’s comments. At least Agent L gave specific points s/he thought were weak.

    But it sounds like you’re going about things the right way—take time to digest the replies and go over them with other knowledgable writers before diving into any changes.

    Should I bring out the old standby of “It’s a marathon, not a sprint?” 😉

    • JM, even though you haven’t got to the query stage yet, you do a terrific job interpreting agent feedback. 🙂

      I have a couple of fulls still out on the YA, once I get the feedback from those agents, I may pause in the querying and go back over the book again.

      Agent L’s critique hurt the most, but actually proved to be the most useful. By giving me 3 specific issues to search for in my 1st 15 pages, Agent L really helped me out.

      I’m still puzzling out Agent N’s response. I think it is something that is clearly shown in the 1st 15 pages so I’m not sure how to make it more clear. Sometimes, it takes a few months for feedback to make sense to me.

      Always good to bring outfield standby. 🙂

  5. Thanks for sharing these Kourtney! I’ll be venturing into the world of submissions myself over the next couple of months, so this was very informative. 🙂

  6. Gah! That’s about all I can say after reading the above criticism. I am surprised by some of these–by most of them–sheesh, they are really honest, aren’t they?

    Back in the day, when I was a lawyer, we received form letters. The only specific criticism was from a big firm partner. He was incensed that there was a typo in my cover letter (which a recruiter had sent out)–so he called me and left a rant on my answering machine. I couldn’t breathe when I listened to it, but in time, I giggled.

    Sigh. I hope you receive some good news (or already have), my friend.

    • LOL. It’s tough to be on the receiving end of rejections. But what I gather a few together, I try to look for similarities and isolate the real issues from the personal dislikes. These are better than getting the “not suitable for me” rejection. At least these point to actual concerns with the manuscript.

      OMG, that is both terrifying and hysterical.

      I do have the full of Six Train out to an agent at Writers House. Her assistant finished reading it today and sent me a quick note to let me know she enjoyed it and she thinks it is great potential and that she’s passing it onto the agent now. So that was a pretty awesome way to start the week!

  7. klynwurth says:

    Rejections scrape, but I always consider a personalized, specific comment to be valuable and encouraging. You’re right, though…it’s difficult to separate the subjective from the helpful, more analytic comment. Good thing your partner can help you sort through that.

    • Kelly, I completely agree with you. 🙂 I’d much rather hear things that staying then the standby of “not right for me.” I appreciate that these agents took the time to give me something to think about. I’m super lucky to have Kat. She has the ability to filter things in such a way that I never take offense and almost always see exactly what she means.

  8. Dear Kourtney,
    I am currently sending out Real Troopers. I have gotten rejection letters for this manuscript, but I look at the rejections as free professional critiques. I keep in mind that their opinions are subjective, and I might just have not yet found the right agent, but I also have a sense of whether there is something to what they are saying. If it rings true, then I address the problems to make the manuscript better.

    Real Troopers was a top contender in the Everything But the Kitchen Sink Contest, but it didn’t win. I made some changes based on the perceptions of the judges in their critiques, and I just learned yesterday that Real Troopers is a finalist in this year’s Pacific Northwest Writers Literary Contest. If it doesn’t win, just being chosen is positive reinforcement, and I will get three professional critiques out of it, which will give me a further idea of what works and what doesn’t work for some people. In the meantime, I am still sending it out and crossing my fingers. I expect many more rejection letters, but I also expect to find an agent and a publisher–eventually. You are obviously close, as you are getting requests for pages. Keep working on it, and keep sending it out. I wish you the very best.

    • Dear Naomi,

      Double congratulations on being a top contender in the Everything But the Kitchen Sink Contest and a finalist in this year’s Pacific Northwest Writers Literary Contest! That is beyond awesome. 🙂 Clearly you got something amazing there and you’re well on your way to an agent and publisher too.

      Personalized rejections are definitely a good sign. I like the way you look at them as free professional critiques. 🙂

      Best of luck,

  9. Great post, Kourtney. I love hearing the ins and outs of your publishing journey. 🙂

    I still remember one of the rejections that made me laugh and go “HUH?!?” at the same time. The agent said something like, “The supernatural elements didn’t work for me.” Um… There were no supernatural elements!

    • Thanks August! I kinda giggled when they wrote the wrong title in my rejection letter. I appreciated them taking the time to reject me personally, but that took the sting out of it. 😉 LOL. That’s awesome. I think agents are forced to read way too fast and it’s really not their fault but it leads to those kind of mishaps. 😉

  10. Pete Denton says:

    Thanks for sharing, Kourtney. I’ve only submitted a couple of short stories and only heard back from one of them. The comments were fair and gave me something to consider, though it was only one person’s point of view.

    I haven’t thought about how I will feel when I finish my novel and start sending out into the world. I am sure I will feel a range of emotions depending on what they say (if anything!)

    In your responses, things that are mentioned once I would take as opinion. Not necessarily a view shared by everyone. Anything that several agents comment on the same issue gives you something to focus on or at least reconsider.

    It sounds promising on Six Train from your comments. I hope they pick that one up. I know I want to read it after the sample 🙂

    • Pete, I do indeed feel a range of emotions when I read the feedback in rejection letters. 🙂 Sometimes, I get conflicting feedback–like what one agent said was working, another agent says wasn’t. That’s tough. I tend to take days to weeks to sort through it and actually make changes. 🙂

      Thanks! That’s the book I feel most confident about. It was my second novel and it did place in the contest so that helps. 🙂 Aw thanks!

  11. kathils says:

    Wow, at least you got some constructive criticism that you could possibly build on.

    • Very true. Some are pretty easy fixes, some I scratch my head at and wait for enlightenment. Some is just personal preference. Sorting through it and using what I can. 🙂

  12. I get nauseous having my other half read my blogs – a manuscript would probably put me in ICU. It is hard to take criticism when your work is such a personal effort, but I’ve learned that without listening and learning my work would have become stalled. You’re funny.

    • LOL. I had so much trouble showing my work to my mom and my friends. Their opinions mattered so much. But they were honest and I learned a lot from their feedback. At the end of the day, I want to write the very best book I am capable of writing. And sometimes I shoot for the best book I could write a few months from now. 🙂 The feedback stings, but there’s always something to take away from it. Thanks! Humor is how I get through stuff. 😉

  13. Kourtney – Thanks so much for sharing your real rejection excerpts! So brave, but so, so helpful to know what to expect when the time comes for me to receive my rejection letters. I fully expect to receive loads. : ) Love your positive attitude of learning whatever you can from them as you read between the lines. 🙂

    • Natalie, glad these helped. I had no idea what to expect when I started querying. I also wanted everyone to know even when some people love your book, others won’t. That’s okay. I just have to keep searching for someone who does love it. And along the way I stop and evaluate any feedback I get. 🙂

  14. What great notes! These are recognition that you are a writer with potential. No one said simply NO. Go away.
    They actually took time to tell you what bothered them.
    Look at agent N’s first line: that’s a good response.
    Q. gave a realistic response: have all I can promote – and this doesn’t fit what I’m needing right now (most common response)
    Books have to hit exactly the right person at the right time, at the right place. So hard to do!
    L would be the hardest for me to take ( that “M” word and that “R” word – sigh) But it’s still only one person’s opinion…and there are published books that those can be applied to….
    In any case, those letters are ones taking you seriously as a writer. WOW. So now it’s all about being balanced/ mature enough to look at your work from a different perspective and decide if / what adjustments need to be made…
    Think of it this way: sometimes even the most well known designer has to seriously look at a dress and make alterations, take a bow off, add a line of detail stitches, to make a dress work for the market!
    You can do it Kourtney – those notes show that.

    • I do get my fair share of “not right for me.” 🙂 But I wanted to share the letters that had actual feedback in them.

      L’s was the hardest to take, but I did manage to locate some redundancies and scatteredness. I’m not really seeing the melodramatic, but that may take time for me to actually see. Feedback is like that. Some makes sense instantly and some takes months before I can see what they saw.

      I’ve taken a preliminary crack at it. I’m going to go over the first 50 pages again and see if I can troubleshoot better with these notes in mind.

      Thanks for helping me interpret the feedback and for the encouragement! 🙂

  15. Despite the fact that these are rejections, they’re not all so very negative. And at least they aren’t form rejections, which is mostly what I got. At least it sounds as if these people read the work.

Any thoughts or reactions or favorite foods you want to share?