There is a special kind of cruelty in rejection delivered in one’s own handwriting.

Way back in the days of old, when all writers knew what SASE meant (self-addressed stamped envelope), when writers submitted to agencies with paper letters and postage, rejection came in the form of a mailing addressed by one’s own hand.

I remember a young writer. We’ll call her Ellen. Ellen grew to loathe those envelopes marked in her best penmanship. Those envelopes that left her hands with such hope, weeks or even months before returning with their cruel missives—responses sometimes photocopied, sometimes personal, and sometimes even cruel. It was almost as if her earlier hopeful self had a hand in these rejections.

But guess what? She did.

You see, Ellen was engaging in a form of promiscuity, dooming her to failed, meaningless relationships with agents over and over again. She could no longer count the notches on her #2 pencils. They all began to line up and overlap, and she could scarcely remember her encounters, let alone recall the agents’ names or what had attracted her to them in the first place.

This went on for years, and it wasn’t until Ellen became a reader for a literary agent that she finally realized what she was doing wrong. In sifting through piles of query letters, Ellen realized that about 90% of the submissions in the slush pile were immediately rejected because they were not right for the agency. The prose might have been brilliant, but if her agent only wanted to represent YA, for example, the writers of suspense, westerns, and poetry were simply wasting their time with their queries. Ellen realized that this was actually very promising for her as a writer, because the competition in the slush pile wasn’t as bad as she thought, as long as it made it to the correct pile.

With Ellen’s first novel, she’d scanned her copy of Writer’s Market, and every single time she found an agent who represented fiction, she sent him or her a query letter. If the listing said the agent represented “literary fiction,” Ellen emphasized the literary elements of her novel. If the listing said “genre fiction,” she emphasized the elements of mystery or romance in her book. If the client list consisted of 90% science fiction authors, Ellen still sent her query, figuring that her novel would be a welcome change for the agent.

After her experience reading for an agent, and the completion of her next novel, Ellen changed her strategy. She only queried agents from the acknowledgements sections of books by her favorite contemporary novelists, or agents who represented her specific genre. She sent out nineteen query letters during the last week in January of 2011. She received thirteen full and partial requests for her manuscript throughout February. She was offered representation by two agents, and signed with her agent on March fourth. Needless to say, Ellen learned a thing or two in the decade it took her to get an agent, but all of it was important to shaping both her craft and her professional life.

One day, however, not long after Ellen signed a two book deal with her publisher, she received a self-addressed stamped envelope from an agency still engaging in the business of paper and pen correspondence. It was the first time that kind of envelope made her smile. She will keep it always as reminder of how far she’s come and how far she still has to go.


*Photo courtesy of Deirdre-Rose


About Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck) self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Penguin Random House published her subsequent novels, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, CALL ME ZELDA, FALLEN BEAUTY, and GRAND CENTRAL, a collaborative short story anthology. Her forthcoming novel THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE releases in May of 2015. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay, and Hawthorne Societies.