Lessons from Peggy Olson

Last night on Mad Men, my role model, Peggy Olson, after once again refusing the advances of that guy who saw her naked, asks him why he always “makes her reject him.” I can relate, Peggy. Only my lament is usually to writers. Rather than make my question hypothetical like Peggy, I thought I’d share the most common types of writers that elicit this response, using other fabulous Peggy quotes, of course. Hopefully you won’t recognize yourself, but maybe you’ll be able to save others.

1. Stop barging in here and infecting me with your anxiety!” It usually goes something like this: I receive a query that doesn’t interest me, so I reply with my form rejection. The writer immediately replies, thanks me for my rejection, and sends another query pasted below. I’m still not interested and send a slightly more personal rejection. Writer responds with, “OK how bout this?” This only reminds me of that kid in junior high who keeps asking out the girl who just wants to be friends. It makes me feel bad, but it doesn’t make me respect you as a writer. It comes off as desperate and unprofessional. Wait a few weeks to query again, and be sure to remind agents what your previous project was so we know who you are.

2. “Clients don’t always know what’s best.” OK, I’m stretching with this quote because instead of “clients,” I will say “potential clients,” and the reason the rejected ones don’t always know what’s best is because they don’t look. An agent shares submission guidelines, what they are looking for, and what they are definitely not looking for are on company websites, agent-directory sites, personal blogs, and on Twitter. If writers are ignoring these outlets, then they just made an extremely competitive business that much harder to break through. If my name is one of many on the “sent” list, or if you attach a query instead of pasting it, or you send me a pitch for something I do not represent, then your email is going to get deleted without being read. Likewise, if you send something via snail mail, it not only takes longer to get a response, but you risk having your query lost in the mail. Or, in the case of larger agencies like Curtis Brown, you could get trapped in the General Slush Pile, queries not addressed to specific agents. Few live to tell the tale.

3. “You have everything and so much of it.” It’s easy to understand why writers would want to stand out to agents, to try to get noticed in a sea of queries. What most of these writers don’t understand is that the best way to get noticed is to have an appealing project. The “look at me” queries are usually 90% biography and 10% project. If you are pitching a nonfiction project that only you can write, then yes, you should include background information. (I should point out that I am not looking for nonfiction, unless it’s of the narrative kind.) When parents talk about their kids as a way of saying “I’m qualified to write YA because I’ve spoken to a child before” it just sounds ridiculous. Same is true for the people who are doctors or lawyers or former CIA agents – working in a field you write about gives your book authenticity, but it doesn’t automatically make you a talented writer. The project you are pitching should always be the focus of your query. Everything else is useless if you don’t have a good idea or ability to write.

4. “I wanted other things.” This comes after I read a manuscript, decide to pass on it, but am willing to read a revision. When the revision comes, I’m always excited to read it because I know it’s a project with potential that hasn’t yet been reached. Sometimes, disaster strikes and the writer does one of two things: 1) he or she does a substantial revision, but does not address any of the issues I wanted addressed, or 2) he or she does exactly what I suggested and nothing else, making the overall product appear poorly constructed and not well thought out. Sadly, another rejection has to be given.

5. “Frankly I’m disappointed by your presentation.” It doesn’t get any clearer, writers. Sometimes the only reason agents “must” reject you is because we are just not impressed by your project. That never means “we are all disappointed;” it just means “I” am, whoever that “I” may be. Don’t take things personally, ever, in this business because rejections come with the territory.

The moral of most of my stories here on the blog is to just be professional and considerate when dealing with agents. Respect their wishes, both in terms of how they want work submitted and when they want you to stop sending them work.

Ultimately, there will be someone out there who will respond positively to your work, and what’s important to remember is that the agents who rejected you won’t feel bad or ashamed when your book gets published. We’ll just think, “See? That project that wasn’t for me really did find a better home. Good for you, writer who now has a good name within the industry!”

But, if you’re anything like those immature men who won’t leave Peggy alone, we won’t have to be gracious at all because, chances are, you are still out there… making people keep rejecting you.

9 thoughts on “Lessons from Peggy Olson

  1. I think sometimes writers like to feel the pain of rejection. It's almost like – I knew I wasn't good enough, but please, tell me again, and again, and again…

    Feliza – peanut butter and chocolate should never be together lol I think it must be an American thing 😉


  2. I'm just glad I got to read this AFTER I emailed you my revision. 🙂 Everything here makes scary sense and I'd have indefinitely postponed submitting any revisions while I battle it out with a million what-ifs.

    But great post all in all. Thanks for this.


  3. Ah, Mad Men and good advice. Like peanut butter and chocolate, they're two great tastes that taste great together.

    Re: trying to stand out in a sea of queries… Yeah, I've been there. I think part of the desire to include irrelevant background info does stem from insecurity, at least it did for me.

    I kept this Ally Carter quote in mind: “Getting an agent is actually a surprisingly straightforward process once you have the right book (note that this is the hard part) and have researched who will be the best fit.”


  4. Rejection is never fun, but dealing with it gracefully always makes it less horrid than it could be. Thanks for sharing your experiences! Hopefully I never fall in those categories.

    And Jaimie, . . . hilarious!


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