How to . . . Interpret a Rejection Letter

Christine Trent PortraitGuest blogger Christine Trent landed a two-book deal with Kensington Books. Her debut novel, The Queen’s Dollmaker, a historical with strong romantic elements, is due to be released in January 2010. I interviewed Christine September 3, 2008. Three weeks later, she sold, and on October 31, 2008 she shared her exciting story of receiving The Call.

Christine has learned a great deal as she’s traveled the path to publication, and I’ve invited her to pass on some of her tips to you. Join us as we explore four topics so important to those eager to receive a contract offer:

April 13: How to . . . Complete a Manuscript

April 16: How to . . .  Submit a Query Letter

April 20: How to . . . Interpret a Rejection Letter

April 23: How to . . . Get from First Sale to Publication Wisely

Be sure to follow the comment trail, where Christine will stop by to respond to your questions. As usual, there’s a drawing. Find out about my biggest giveaway yet at the end of the post.

And now, here’s Christine  . . .

A Writer’s Tool Kit: Part 3

How to . . . Interpret a Rejection Letter

by Christine Trent

“I have kept the faith”
Interpreting rejection letters; staying strong during the low times

For those of you who have received rejection letters: Do you remember your first one? I do.

I had attended a conference and met with an agent. She enthusiastically responded to my very first pitch. “That was well done! Send me your first 50 pages!” I walked out of my eight minutes on a cloud. Not a week after I sent in my partial, an e-mail from the agent popped up on my computer screen. “This is it!” I thought. “She loved it. Of course, who wouldn’t? It was simply the best manuscript, sent along with the best query letter after giving the best pitch ever!!”

Five seconds after opening the e-mail I burst into tears. Truly, I did. It was a very polite rejection, stating that she wasn’t as excited about my characters as she hoped she would be. What? She was rejecting me and my literary masterpiece? How could this be?

So, after thirty minutes of remarkable self-pity, I figured I had best pick myself up off the ground, lest I drown in my own salty tears.

Trust me, once you get past your first rejection, the rest are a piece of cake. In fact, I started my own binder of them. I would carefully staple each rejection letter to its accompanying copy of the query I had sent. The binder got pretty full, pretty quickly.

But I learned something from all those rejection letters, and I’d like to share my thoughts with you. They seem to fall into five categories, in advancing tiers of promise:


The Form Rejection

This rejection is generally addressed “Dear Writer” and generically describes the rejection as “not fitting our list” or having been sent because “we are overwhelmed with submissions.” Don’t take it personally. Agents and editors are busy people and may only have time to perform a surface skim of your query. They may be seeking Civil War-set historicals this month, and your historical takes place in the Renaissance. It is no reflection on you, the writer.


The Copy of a Copy of a Copy Rejection

To me, these are the most painful rejections. They are not only Form Rejections, but they also suggest that your submission meant so little that you didn’t even rate a fresh sheet of paper from the printer! However, I encourage you once again not to take it personally. You aren’t the only one to get this rejection (I’ve had them, too). Again, agents and editors are very busy, and they may keep a stack of generic rejection letters just so they can keep up with their mountain of submissions.


The Polite Rejection

Congratulations! You’ve just climbed a rung on the rejection letter. It might say something like, “Although I liked your voice, I did not engage with your heroine.” This is very encouraging. It means your manuscript caught the agent/editor’s eye and got more than a skimming. You’re starting to get some notice.


The “Make These Changes” Rejection

When an agent or editor suggests that you make revisions to your manuscript with no offer to contract with you, THINK TWICE before doing it. I once got a Form Rejection, but across the top the agent had written suggestions for how to improve my manuscript, stating that she would love to see it again if I made the changes.

I spent a couple of weeks on the changes, sent my partial back in . . . and promptly got a Copy of a Copy of a Copy rejection. Eeep! And as I made those changes, I didn’t feel like they were right for my manuscript; I was just hoping to sell.

Don’t get me wrong. If you think an agent/editor is making a valid point, or if more than one agent/editor has made the same comment, you might think about making changes. Just consider it carefully. However, it is another indication that your manuscript has serious promise of selling.


The Detailed Rejection

This is the best kind of rejection you can possibly get. It’s clear the editor/agent has thoroughly read your manuscript, instead of just skimming the first few pages. He made detailed comments on your characters, setting, or plot, and made specific notes about what just didn’t work right for him.

Friend, you are very close to a “yes” at this point. Your manuscript was interesting enough to get a complete read, and that is very promising.

But it begs the question: now should you make changes based on his comments and send it back? I’m sure there are lots of opinions out there, but my own advice is no, do not do this. Instead, keep that person at the top of your list for after you do sell. He might be willing to take a chance on you in a different genre, or in a second book deal, or for some other future venture. If your manuscript was good enough to get a detailed rejection, it’s probably good enough to sell as is.


As I said in my last blog entry, you can sell your manuscript. Obviously, you take your career seriously because you’ve read this blog to the end. 🙂 Keep the faith, and keep your eye on the end goal.

Next time, in my final article in this series,  I’ll talk about what to do in the interim between selling and publication.


Any questions about handling rejections?


Leave a Comment for Your Chance to Win

I have a plethora of prizes to give away while Christine’s posts are active. This time I’m keeping the prizes a secret. Yes, each winner will receive a package with a minimum of three mystery items that range from note cards to necklaces or memo pads to magnets.

I’ll choose eleven winners from those who leave a comment for Christine between April 13 and 23, one each day, and will post the winners’ names as they are drawn.

To be entered in the drawing, please include an email address when prompted, which I don’t share. Each comment counts as an entry, and you may enter as many times as you’d like.

Winners: #1 Leslie Carroll, #2 Leigh, #3 Jessica, #4 Eileen Astels, #5 Karen Fraga, #6 Sherrinda, #7 Margay


You could also win a First Sale Scrapbook!

If you’d like to have a chance at winning a First Sale Scrapbook created by your blog hostess, Keli Gwyn, leave a comment on any post between now and April 30. Make sure to include your name and email address when prompted if you want to be entered in the drawing. (Your information will not be shared.) Click red link above to see samples of covers and pages.

On May 1, Keli will choose one person who will have her choice of five covers on an 8×8 inch, twenty-page scrapbook in which s/he can document that long-awaited first sale. The pages will cover various milestones including The Call, signing the contract, receiving the first advance payment and holding your “firstborn” in your hands.

(No scrapbooking skills required. You just add your photos and journaling.)


Learn More About Christine

Visit her Web site:


Learn More About Her Debut Novel

The Queen’s Dollmaker
Coming January 2010 from Kensington Books

“An exuberant, sparkling debut. Beguiling details of doll making are a joy in this rags-to-riches romp. Brims with Dickensian gusto.”
–Barbara Kyle, author of The Queen’s Lady and The King’s Daughter

A young woman, struggling to expand her London dollmaking trade, finds a surprising customer in Queen Marie Antoinette, an avid doll collector herself.  This seemingly innocent exchange puts Claudette’s life in danger when she is lured to Paris under false pretenses.  Money and jewels are being smuggled in dolls destined for the Queen, and have now been discovered by the fledgling revolutionary French government.  Her only hope for escaping the guillotine is a man she pledged not to love, who has no idea she has even been imprisoned…

About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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20 Responses to How to . . . Interpret a Rejection Letter

  1. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks, Christine, for another great article.

    I wish I’d read this two years ago before I received a “Make These Changes” rejection with an offer to read the full if I made them–but with NO promise of representation. I spent over a month completing a massive revision based on the agent’s comments, only to receive a “Polite Rejection” in reply. And, just like you said, I think I did myself a disservice by changing something in my story that shouldn’t have been changed.

  2. Great stuff here, Christine!

    Of course when you have an agent she’s the buffer between the rejection letters and you, so the pain is one person removed. And believe me, published authors’ proposals get rejected all the time, too (and sometimes by their own editors, who would rather see them writing something else).

    My favorite rejection letter came from an editor I ended up working with years later, although not for my historical novels. Back in 1999, she politely rejected the manuscript, explaining that because it was a hybrid of genres (romance, paranormal, and historical fiction — which wasn’t even a blip on the horizon then), that her house wouldn’t know what to do with it.

    “Publish it!” was my response.

    But the best part of the rejection letter (and I still have the copy my agent mailed me) was that this editor (who is very well known as a romance editor) remarked that my novel had the steamiest love scene she’d ever read (or words to that effect). Would you believe that all these years later I don’t remember it verbatim? I used to know her entire rejection letter by heart. 🙂

    Over the next 6 years, the novel went through several subsequent revisions (several editors were interested IF ONLY I’d make some changes) — only to reject it after I did that.

    How should an author handle that, Christine?

    Anyway, the novel finally sold in 2005, I think and the editor who bought it asked me to tone down the scene in question. It was published in 2006 as BY A LADY, under my pen name, Amanda Elyot.

  3. Christine, I so need an iddy-bit of your confidence!! I’m the worst for altering my ms at a single request. So far it’s just with critique partners, but still, I’ve been struggling to keep my voice when I change the ms just to please them.

    Discernment is so difficult at times. More prayer is needed by me, I guess.

    Thanks for sharing this, it helps me prepare for what’s ahead.

  4. Kwana says:

    Thanks so much Keli and Christine. I don’t know why I never started a notebook. I still find stray letters in boxes around the house. One day I may put them all in a VERY thick binder:)

  5. Sarah Tormey says:

    Great blog post Christine! I recently completed a DRAMATIC rewrite to my current work in progress based on the feedback from an agent. She spent an hour on the phone with me giving me notes and discussing my book (clearly she’d read the entire thing, which I thought was great!) With her notes in mind, I tossed out everything that I didn’t love about my work and tried again. While I would not encourage others to do the same based on one person’s opinion, I think it helped me let go of some scenes that truly did not work for my book.

  6. Christine Trent says:

    Leslie, it sounds like that editor in question was not much of a risk-taker! It sounds like you went through a lot of pain in order to get BY A LADY finally published, and I’m so glad that worked out for you. However, I think your experience proves my point that you probably shouldn’t do major changes to your manuscript if the agent/editor in question isn’t offering a contract!

    Hope we’ll be seeing more great historical fiction from you soon.


  7. Anne Barton says:

    Hi, Christine–I hope you’re recovered from the retreat!

    I like the progression you’ve laid out. I agree that “good” rejections can be motivating. 🙂


  8. Christine Trent says:

    Eileen, believe me, confidence is only born out of horrifying situations! I’m just hoping that relaying my situation will help others out there.

    Critique partners are wonderful to have, but you’ve hit upon something crucial: you can’t write your manuscript by committee. Let them make recommendations to you for changes and improvements, and then you need to decide whether YOU think they are of value. Never attempt to make changes to please your CP’s, because they’ve probably forgotten what they suggested ten minutes after making the suggestion.

    My prayers for your success!


  9. Christine Trent says:

    Kwana, LOL. I had to graduate from a smaller to a larger binder as the rejections began piling up. But I look at it all as an organization project. I even made up a fancy cover on my computer and slipped it into the front clear cover of the binder! There’s nothing quite like dressing up all of your rejections!


  10. Christine Trent says:

    Sarah, it sounds as though in your case the rewrite really worked. However, I must say, very few agents will spend an hour on the phone with someone who isn’t a client offering advice, so you were blessed indeed. Hope I read about a sale for you soon!


  11. Christine Trent says:

    Hi Anne, I think I need one more night of sleep to be fully recovered, but I had a great time. Hope you did, too.


  12. Leah Carol says:

    I think one of the biggest mysteries to – and major frustrations of – any writer is the meaning of rejection letters. It is so hard to derive any good from something that tells us the thing we slaved over for months, or even years, is not good enough for someone. But as you showed here, there are varying levels of rejection. Thank you for pointing them out and highlighting the fact that a rejection isn’t always just a flat-out no – there are lessons to be learned from them, if we are willing to invest the time.


  13. Margay says:

    Sorry, that last comment was from me, but I didn’t realize my daughter was still logged in – I’m not used to her having the same type of accounts as me (now I know how she felt when I first signed up with Facebook). I need to get her her own computer!


  14. This was a truly fascinating blog to read. I got one of those detailed rejection letters from my dream agent. Three pages prefaced by a statement to the effect that it was a really difficult choice not to represent the manuscript. Great suggestions, lots of encouragement and an invitation to resend with revisions OR to send my next manuscript.

    I will revise the manuscript soon, BUT I was busy working on my second book and I am now ready to query it. Should I query her with a reminder and offer to send this book? I think it is a better book and did in fact incorporate some of her suggestions to improve the first book as I was writing this one.

    But I feel much better about the “detailed” rejection now.

  15. Christine Trent says:

    Margay, I’m glad there was useful advice for you here. I really appreciate you following this blog!


  16. Christine Trent says:

    Louisa, congratulations on getting such a detailed rejection from your dream agent! I recommend that you query her with your second book with a reminder about the first book. If she remembers how much she loved the first one, I’m sure she’ll want to see the second one. Then if she decides to represent the second one, you’ll probably get the first one back on the table!

    My best wishes for your success.


  17. Margay says:

    Christine, I am finding this all so helpful that I’m saving it all to refer to again later. Thank you so much for doing this series!

  18. Kit says:

    Great post. I think you’re right on about the different types of letters. And we’ve all gotten them. I have also enjoyed the posted comments and can say I’m pretty sure it never crossed my mind to change a ms for an agent. Changing my work for an editor…uh, SURE. I have and will continue to do that…but for an agent to ask that without an agreement that they will shop it around afterword…uh, my advice is don’t bother. It’s not the agent for you. Just my two cents 🙂

  19. Christine Trent says:

    Hi Kit, you are right: when an editor wants a change (as long as there is a contract behind it!), we very happily make changes. And I agree with you that an agent who wants changes without an offer of representation is probably the wrong agent. It can be very difficult, though, for an unpublished writer to resist the temptation to make changes in the hope that it will result in an offer.

    Thanks for stopping by!


  20. Christine Trent says:


    Aw shucks, ma’am, you’re making me blush!


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