Wednesday, May 18, 2011

30 WOW Wednesday: Sherrie Petersen on the Magic Rejection Number

Today's guest is Sherrie Petersen, who writes middle grade novels and moonlights as a graphic designer, substitute teacher, freelance writer, school newspaper advisor, and mother of two children. She is represented by Michelle Humphrey at International Creative Management. Catch her on her website or at her her blog, where she's having a fabulous book giveaway this week. 


by Sherrie Petersen

A friend asked me the other day how many queries she should send out for a book before giving up.


My first reaction was, “NEVER GIVE UP!” But then I started thinking about my own querying journey and I realized sometimes, you do have to give up.

I started querying SECRET OF UNDINE in early 2009. I loved that book. It had water faeries and trolls, and two unsuspecting kids who get caught up in a territory war between the magical creatures. It was brilliant. I entered it in a prominent contest and won third place. I thought I had it made. Agents were going to be lining up to get their hands on this story.

Not so much.

I queried and rewrote, then queried some more. For more than a year. I got requests for partials and fulls. At one point, three agents were looking at the full at the same time and I just knew one of them would sign me. They were going to compete for my story and I’d have a contract with a major publishing house within a month.

Um, yeah. I obviously have a great imagination.

To console myself in the midst of all the querying, I started another novel, WISH YOU WEREN’T, a story about a boy who wishes his brother away. Even as I was writing it, I knew this story was stronger. The hook was stronger, the plotting was better. And my writing had improved a lot.

By early 2010 I’d sent out close to fifty queries for SECRET OF UNDINE, all of them ending in rejection, but I was ready to let it go. Several of the agents who had read UNDINE specifically told me that they’d be happy to look at anything new because they liked my writing. Now I had something better to send them.

About a week after I typed “THE END” and finished incorporating all the feedback from my critique group, I organized my potential agents into an Excel spreadsheet, categorized by whether they accepted email queries or required snail mail. The first ten on my list were people who had told me to submit when I had something new. They all accepted email. And they all got a query for my brand spanking new story with the first chapter attached.

I knew I was going to land an agent within the month. This time they’d be fighting to sign me. This time I’d get not only the publishing contract, but a movie deal as well.

Did I mention I have a really good imagination?

The very next day, rejections started pouring in. I was floored. This was not part of the plan. Were they not seeing the beauty in my cleverly plotted, expertly written novel? What was going on?

Simple answer: I had queried too soon.

I hadn’t let the novel sit. I hadn’t sent it out to anyone other than my critique group. And as a result, I had blown it with some of the agents who I thought were best for my story.

So I sent my not-so-shiny-new novel off to a beta reader. She didn’t have good news. In fact, she told me that several of my chapters were boring and pointless and she didn’t even finish reading the novel.

I spent the next two weeks in a funk. I didn’t query, I didn’t write. What was the point? I was obviously a hack.

But then I entered a little contest hosted by Cynthea Liu, called Red Light Green Light. And I won. The prize? A detailed critique of the first fifty pages of my novel and a referral to her agent.

That contest win energized me. I rewrote the first half of my book and applied Cynthea’s general comments to the rest of my novel. Now I KNEW I had it made. I’d get the agent, the book deal, the movie…

Only that didn’t happen. Again.

I sent out a few more queries and got rejected. Again.

I was done.

No, I was DONE!!!!!!!!

I was tired of getting my hopes up only to be disappointed again. I didn’t want to put myself through the torture anymore.

But then a funny thing happened. Someone sent me an email about how depressed she was with all the rejections. And in the midst of encouraging her, I encouraged myself. I knew my novel was good. I wasn’t ready to give up on it yet.

I sent out one more query. And found my dream agent. (You can read the story here.)

So how many queries should you send out before giving up? Your answers may vary. Mine did. I sent out almost fifty for UNDINE. But for WYW, the story that led me to my agent, Michelle Humphrey, I sent out 23. She was #24.

There is no magic number. There’s only a lot of feverish rewriting, ice cream consumed and lessons learned.

So what did I learn from this experience?

1. First novels rarely get picked up. UNDINE wasn’t the first novel I’d written, but it was the first one I’d queried. And speaking of queries…
2. Don’t query too soon. Typing The End doesn’t mean you’re done writing or editing. Give your story time to sit before you send it out to the world.
3. Trust beta readers. Even if you don’t agree with them at first. In addition to Cynthea’s critique, I took the advice of the beta reader and got rid of the chapters that didn’t move my story forward. My story is better for it.
4. Don’t give up too soon. That next query could be the one that makes all the difference.

Sometimes you do have to move on and accept that the novel you poured your soul into for more than a year was just a practice novel. And sometimes you have to find the courage to try again.

Most importantly, believe in yourself. Trust in yourself. You started on this journey for a reason. Don’t give it up too soon.


  1. What a great story! And it is true. We have to be careful not to query too soon and not to give up too soon. :)

  2. Great inspiring advice. I'm close to querying my first book, but it's high fantasy and I'm realizing it may be a manuscript that will not land me my agent. So like you, I am thinking ahead to my next book in case that happens.

    The manuscript you landed an agent with sounds awesome. Good luck with submissions.

  3. What a great story! I'm always so happy to read success stories that aren't the straight path we imagine, but wind a bit through the valley of rejection ... there is hope for all of us!

  4. Thanks for such an honest post! I've been guilty of querying too soon and glad to know it doesn't have to mean the end for a particular project :)

  5. Great advice, Sherrie. It's important to know when to stop querying and when to keep going, though it's not always easy to figure this out while querying. :P

  6. Great advice Sherrie--I love hearing stories of persevering authors! One of the best pieces of advice I heard this past weekend at the NESCBWI conference was "do the work." In other words, learn the craft, practice, and persevere!

  7. Great advice! It's definitely easy to get discouraged when you're in the throws of rejection, but I firmly believe that if you keep pressing forward and pushing yourself, you'll make it!

  8. My favorite bit is when you encouraged yourself by trying to encourage a friend.

    Love this story!


  9. "Um, yeah. I obviously have a great imagination."

    Well, it IS a requisite for the job. ;)

    "So I sent my not-so-shiny-new novel off to a beta reader. She didn’t have good news. In fact, she told me that several of my chapters were boring and pointless and she didn’t even finish reading the novel. "

    LOL WHOA, that is one HARSH beta! I mean that as a compliment, of course, because I don't know if I'd have the balls...

    "Sometimes you do have to move on and accept that the novel you poured your soul into for more than a year was just a practice novel. And sometimes you have to find the courage to try again. "

    Exactly! And most importantly, you have to learn to distinguish between the two "sometimes"es. :P

    Great post, Sherrie. Thank you and congrats!

  10. Thanks, everyone! Glad my experience can inspire you :)

    Laura: The irony is that I knew not to query too soon, but I was worried the agents would forget me. *head palm* But lesson learned!

    Natalie: Everything you write helps you write better, but don't be so sure that fantasy won't sell. Mandy Hubbard has a great post about current trends. Check it out.

    Katie: I agree! I like knowing there's a chance, even if I'm not an overnight success :)

    Stina: It is tough, and sometimes you don't know until you're looking back.

    Kristine: Perseverance has paid off for me so far!

    Meredith: I agree. I think sometimes we do have to mourn and mope, and then we have to move on and keep trying.

    Shelley: I like that part too. I'm so thankful for friends I can commiserate with as well as celebrate with :)

    Kristan: Thank you :) And yes, I am very thankful to that beta reader, even though at the time I was fuming!!

  11. Great story. Perseverance is key in this industry.

  12. Oh I adore this post. I love when people are real and authentic and let us see the good and the bad. And your humor shines through this post. Congrats on finding your agent and wishing you a long and successful--and happy--career!


  13. Great post, Sherrie! It's in the waiting (and disappointment) that we grow. And I had TONS of waiting and disappointment too.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  14. What a cool story! There were so many points where you could've given up. And argh, yes, let things sit--and find new people to read your stuff, objective people. Cynthea Liu is great for that! I entered the Red Light, Green Light thing too a while back. She was yawning in places and so I slashed, slashed, slashed!

  15. Sherrie, I love this. Writing isn't for the faint of heart, is it? At the same time, I'm so glad we don't know all hard work and stress beforehand.

  16. Great story! The only secret to success really is: NEVER GIVE UP.

  17. Sherrie, you give perseverance a great face. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm about to launch the query cycle for MS #2 so I totally relate to your POV on the process. Time to give my imagination a talking-to.

  18. Awesome lesson here. Don't query too soon, but just as important, DON'T STOP TRYING. Isn't there a saying about that? Something like... the only unpublished authors are the ones who quit trying?

  19. Sherrie, your journey is so similar to mine! I also queried a book for a while that just kept getting rejected. I finally sent out a new project and it was also too soon. Luckily, an agent who rejected it gave me some great advice, and thanks to her feedback, I revised it so it was finally good enough. The process is slow and long, but we certainly learn a lot along the way!

  20. I think the fact that all the work may be for practice is the hard part. I have a hard time keeping going with that thought in my head... So I will get rid of it.

  21. Congratulations on finally getting that 'yes'. I have to remind myself over and over that it only takes one, and I don't mind the hard part, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, but I abhore querying. So for now, I'm not querying anything, I'm letting my WIP possess me and we're both happier for it.

  22. Great post. Thanks. I think I'll go send out a couple of queries.

  23. I just love hearing your story! You are such an inspiration ... and I'm more determined than ever! :)

  24. Thank you for sharing your story. I know the road to publication can be long....and discouraging....but I'll walk it.

  25. Thank you all! And thanks Martina and Marissa for having me here :)

  26. Wow!! Such great advice about letting your novel sit and stew (one of the hardest things to do!).

    What an amazing ride!!! And, I'm so happy for you. Persistence and the ability to revise are the two most important things in this biz.


  27. I absolutely loved this post! Thanks so much for the inspiration.

  28. I am so there. I've got my ms polished up AGAIN, out with one agent on full and with one Beta and I'm expecting either one of them to tell me yeah, I can write, but...

    I'll polish one more time with whatever they give me, send out one more round of queries and decide from that what to do. It may be time to fly the white flag of truce and mourning. Sigh.

    Wishing I hadn't queries two years ago because I am worn out now! (And if any first timer reads that and thinks, "Yeah, but my book is ready," I suggest you put it aside for a month or two, write other things and then return. You'll most likely realize you're not ready to query.)

  29. I loved hearing your story, Sherrie, and can't wait to hear what happens next!

  30. Thanks for sharing your story, Sherrie! I wish you all the best! Can't wait to hear the good news soon!


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