SASE's Return A Rejection Survival Toolkit

by Brian Mercer

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2008

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2008

Anyone who's queried an agent or an editor has likely experienced it. You're walking out to your mailbox, anticipating a package, a magazine, perhaps the occasional, cherished letter, and there it is:  That familiar white rectangle; your self-addressed stamped envelope--your little carrier pigeon has come home.  And while it can be the bearer of good news, dreams fulfilled, even continued hope if the agent/editor shows interest, what's most likely sitting in that harmless looking envelope is the dreaded rejection letter.  

It's usually a simple form letter: “Thanks, but it's not right for us,” but what it means, in essence, is "no."  And at a core level it means something more visceral.  When we send out a query letter, we're not just asking a question: "Can I send this manuscript to you?  Will you publish this?"  It is something entirely more profound.  We are asking for our dreams to be fulfilled.  Every query letter equals Hope.  Despite what we know of the odds, there is nothing more optimistic than putting a query letter in the mail. 

We know intellectually that this is folly.  We know we're buying lottery tickets.  We know what's likely sitting in that return envelope. Yet none of that prepares us for the metaphoric kick in the gut that is the rejection letter.  Anyone who does this long enough builds up a Skinnerian association, until the mere sight of your SASE is enough to send you reeling.  Self-addressed stamped envelope equals Hopes Dashed. 

For me, in the early days, the instant I recognized my return letter, I felt a very real sensation of dread that started at my solar plexus and spread outward.  I had to fight the inclination to collapse on the couch, curl into a fetal position and sob, inconsolable by family or pets.  And that was before I even opened the letter! 

Like anything that happens to you in life, the event itself matters less than how you perceive it.  The trick is to get past the rejection letter and see it for what it is: a response to a question and nothing more.  The ultimate aim is to get through the query process without growing so discouraged that you give up your dreams.  While it’s not always possible to propel instantly from despair to enlightenment, there are some road-tested methods for helping you along the way. 

Over the years I've developed several techniques for making the process of querying agents and editors as smooth and effortless as possible.  What follows is a rejection letter survival toolkit, or what I like to call "Brian's Candy-Ass Methods for Pain Avoidance."

Technique #1: Write Your Own Response

Most replies from agents and editors are form letters.  By necessity, with the amount of material they receive, there just isn't time to personalize every response.   

Most agents and editors have one form letter.  Everyone gets the same one.  Its content, therefore, is meaningless. 

Knowing this intellectually doesn't stop people (consciously or unconsciously) from scrutinizing the letter for clues as to why they were rejected.  Everything comes into play--the letter's length, its verbiage, the precision of the folding, the quality and clarity of the photocopy.  What subliminal message is being conveyed? 

One way to circumvent the rejection letter is to bypass it altogether.  Instead of including a self-addressed stamped envelope with your query letter, try creating a response card instead. 

The response card resembles a postcard:  On one side, your address, the agent's return address, and a postage stamp.  On the flip side, print a few simple phrases and the space for a multiple-choice answer.  For example, something like this:  "Thank you for querying me about your novel, Flight of the Rain Pigs.   (Please circle desired answer.)  a) Please send me the first ­­­­____ chapters.  b) Please send me the first ____ pages.  c) Please send me the entire manuscript.  d) I am not interested in seeing any material at this time."  Be sure to leave space for the agent or editor to write comments. 

The advantage of this method is that you will, in essence, receive your own letter, which you can craft to sound as positive as you'd like.  The only thing you're liable to see from the agent/editor is the response he or she has circled.  And for the agent/editor, it's much easier than fussing with a rejection letter.  They simply mark their answer and drop the card in the mail. 

Creating an agent/editor response card is easy.  All you need is a computer, a good printer, some card stock, and a paper cutter.  If you find it easier, the cost to have them professionally printed is minimal. 

Using this method doesn't mean that you won't come to dread seeing your response card in your mailbox, but it does lessen the anticipation of opening your returned SASE and having your subconscious struggle to find significance in the agent/editor's meaningless form letter.  When you create your own response card, you've whittled the reply down to the simple answer:  "Yes" or "No."

Technique #2: Start Your Next Project before Querying Agents 

You've likely heard this advice before.  It's the standard suggestion for lessening the sting of rejection.  The idea is that, since you've just spent weeks, months--maybe years--laboring over your manuscript, all your hopes for validation as a writer have become centered on your most recent project.  Once you start a new project, the thinking goes, all your energy and hope transfers to it.  The manuscript about which you are querying is no longer your center of attention and therefore you are less likely to feel crushed by a rejection. 

This technique works, but it can fall short if your time is limited.  A lot of effort goes into the query process: finding the right agents/editors, understanding their needs, crafting a good query letter, managing the comings and goings of correspondence.  If your writing time is limited, you can easily spend it all on the querying process with no time left over to devote to your next project.  After all, it takes work to start something new (research, plotting, character creation, etc.), and it can be weeks or months before you're actively writing your next manuscript.

For this method to be effective, you may have to sit on your recently completed project for a few weeks to give yourself time to get engaged with your next project.  This also gives you a chance to get the query process going, so that by the time those SASEs begin rolling in for your first manuscript, you're already putting the finishing touches on chapter three of its sequel.  (It also doesn't hurt to set your newly finished work aside and take a fresh look before sending it out to agents and editors.)

Technique #3: Prepare Your Next Query Letter BEFORE You Get Rejected 

Also common advice:  As soon as you receive a rejection letter, immediately send out a new query. 

I don't know about you, but after going through the pain and trauma of receiving a rejection letter, the very last thing I want to do is send out another query and make it happen again.  You can avoid this dilemma by writing your next query before you receive your SASE.  If a rejection letter equals Hopes Dashed, then there is nothing more reviving than placing a new portion of Hope in the mail, right away. 

Tips for success:  Make it as easy as possible to send out the next query.  Print everything out.  Have stamps in place.  Sign the letter.  Stuff the envelope.  (Since you won’t know exactly when the query will go out, don't include a date on the letter.  Fear not, if the editor or agent really wants to see your work, they won't reject you simply because the date is missing from your query letter).  That way, when you do receive your SASE, it will take minimal effort to launch the next query.  There's nothing like seeing a half-dozen query letters ready for action to combat rejection letter blues.

Technique #4: Have Someone Screen Your Rejection Letters 

I love getting mail; whether packages or magazines, I'm always expecting something good.  Not so, however, when there are query letters out there.  My SASEs become white paper assassins lingering in my mailbox, ready to advance from the shadows to slit my hope. 

The answer: Have someone else screen your mail.  I have used this technique with great success over the years.  By now I've honed it to a precise little protocol.  My wife intercepts the mail and removes SASEs.  I don't even know they've arrived until the next day when I get to work.  If a response from an agent came the day before, she sends me an email with a one-word subject line:  "SASE."  In the email, she simply writes the name of the agent who sent the letter.  If there is good news, a personalized letter, a helpful or positive comment, she'll pass those along.  But if it is simply a form rejection, the name of the agent is all I need to make an appropriate entry into my query log. 

This method has several advantages.  First, home remains a safe haven.  Instead, I get the information at work, where I'm already in Business Mode.  And that's what a query letter response is, an answer to a business proposal.  At work, I can treat it as such and then move on to any of a dozen tasks that drive the answer out of my mind.  It also means I never get the bad news over the weekend.  And, if there's good news, then there are plenty of people with which to share it.  Finally, I never obsess over the quality or phrasing of a meaningless form letter because I never have to look at it.  I only see a name of an agent, nothing more. 

Don't have a housemate to screen your mail?  No worries.  There is no rule that says the address on your self-addressed stamped envelope has to be your own.  Why not send it in care of a friend?  Consider teaming up with another writer and managing each other's query letter responses.  Pick someone you trust, preferably someone who is simultaneously sending out queries.  There's no one more empathetic at delivering query letter news than another writer who has himself felt the sting of rejection.

Technique #5: Query Until You're Desensitized

This technique is a little like applying for a job when you're really not interested in it.  Some people do this to polish their job interview skills.  What's the worst that can happen?they reason.  The hiring authority says no.  Yet there's always a chance of a job offer.  Have you ever noticed how opportunities tend to manifest when you're not really looking for them?  

Using this technique, you would send out a project for which you've lost interest.  Have an old novel lying around?  Maybe it's time to dust it off and send it out again.  Maybe you don't have anything finished, but you have chapters that can be transformed into short stories, or an idea for a book proposal that won't take long to put together.  It doesn't matter what you send.  The key here is to find a project for which you have minimal enthusiasm and send it out to practice your querying skills. 

So the project gets rejected.  So what?  That old manuscript?  You were going to throw it out anyway.  What's the worst that can happen? 

By practicing with a project for which you have low enthusiasm you're toughening your skin and building resistance to rejection letter shock, so that when you're ready to send out a project you really are excited about, you've grown into a hardened, query letter veteran.

Technique #6: Throw Away Your Rejection Letters 


I occasionally hear people say they save their rejection letters.  They treat them as proof that they're trying, and there is something to be said for that.  Every time you get a rejection letter, however, it’s sending a subtle message to your subconscious:  "I'm not good enough."  This is a message that should be discarded, not reinforced. 

By saving your rejections letters, you are adding to the message.  "This rejection letter is important.  I give it weight by giving it a place in my home." 

Treat rejection letters as an answer to a question and discard them.  Don't save them.  Don't file them.  Don't frame them.  Reject the rejection letter. 

The only exception is when something in a personalized rejection letter inspires you, but even then don't save it.  Instead, copy down the positive statement, print it, and put it where you can see it when you're writing.  Make a second copy for the area where you prepare query letters.  Keep a third near the incoming mail.  That is the message you want to reinforce, not the rejection letter from which it came.

Technique #7: Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome 

It can be tempting to think of the publishing world as a place that resides behind great stone walls, and to view agents and editors as gatekeepers.  We've all heard stories of aspiring authors writing their first novel, selling it for a bundle, and becoming a big sensation.  I think every writer secretly dreams of such success.  These instant celebrities found their way past the gatekeepers.  Why can't we? 

Sure, overnight success happens, but it's extraordinary.  The process of getting into the publishing world is less about dramatically blowing past the walls (such as they are) and more like the steady, tireless process of erosion: small success by small success by small success.

It seems logical to conclude that the ideal endgame to sending out query letters is publication, yet if you focus on that as a goal the process of getting accepted by an agent or editor will be laden with pain and disappointment. 

It's important to remember that in life, you get to define success.  Define it in a way that empowers you.  Instead of focusing on goals that are ultimately out of your control (finding an agent, being accepted by an editor), focus on process goals.  Perhaps you'll determine that if you find three agents a week who are seeking material in your genre, you are successful.  Or that every time you receive a rejection letter, you'll immediately send out your next query.  If your goal is to query thirty agents and you achieve it, you have to feel good about it.  

Define success however you want, but define it in a way that it is under your control. Define it in a way in which you know you can't lose.  Focus on the process, and let the outcome manifest on its own.


Brian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection(Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007).  He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.

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