Writers have baggage. We’re human, after all. It’s great if we can use it to bring our prose some authenticity. But more likely, baggage weighs us down, trips us up and makes us doubt ourselves. Artists are their own worst critics.
Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, puts it succinctly:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
We write, edit, rewrite, fall in love with our words and the next day, delete half of them. It’s a painful business, but easier to handle when I’m the only one reading my words. It’s when it’s time to share them with others that I falter. Great critique partners can be a godsend, and I’m lucky to have several. But while they can help me prepare my words for agents’ scrutiny, they can’t prepare me.
When those query letters go out into the world, they lay bare the passionate work of years of writing. Suddenly I am a child again, holding my best work before an esteemed adult, looking for affirmation. Pride and fear swirl inside me that they will deem my efforts childish, dull, worthless.
Rejection is hard to take. And while I understand that form rejection letters serve several purposes (relay the message; save the agents time; are short and polite without being critical), they’re still disappointing to receive. But you get used to them after a while.
So when I had the opportunity this week to receive personal feedback on my query letter and first ten pages from an agent, I leapt at it. Even if it was only one agent’s personal opinion, it would give me some insight into how my work is seen by these professionals.
I was so excited, I missed a step in the submission requirements. “Well, that’s that,” I figured. This agent was likely so overwhelmed with queries because of his generous offer, I told myself, that my misstep would surely garner me nothing more than another form letter.
But I was pleasantly surprised, on several accounts.
First, the agent wrote back within a few hours (practically unheard of). Second, he did give me personal feedback, despite my inability to follow his instructions. But best of all, his words were kind, praising and specific about what he loved and what, for him, did not personally fit. It was the first time I’d read a rejection letter and smiled.
It wasn’t soul-crushing.
It didn’t leave me wondering why someone didn’t want my work.
And it didn’t add to my baggage of self-doubt. In fact, it left me so optimistic that I got right back to work.
When negative news is balanced with support and positive feedback, it can change someone’s entire outlook. This is what I’ve got with my critique group, what I received from this agent, and what I wish for every artist out there who struggles with self-criticism and doubt.
You’re doing great. Don’t stop. We need your beautiful work in the world. Please, do whatever it takes to get it out there. Persevere. We’ll be here, anxiously waiting.