I've seen this question come up a lot in the last week in discussion with some other agents and writers. This question comes up a lot from writers who have started the querying process and are getting rejection emails in their own inbox. What do you do when people are telling you they don't want your work?
I think we should take a step back, first, and acknowledge how hard querying is. It is a tough ordeal. It's on you, the author, to compile your list of agents, then to send your query letter and manuscript out to all of them (either all at once or in stages) on a hope and a prayer that they'll fall in love with your work and want to represent you. I get it. And I'm sorry you have to wade through what feel like personal rejections of who you are as a person and your writing.
So here's a part of the story that I wish we talked about a little more openly: you will get rejections and this doesn't mean that your work isn't good. Let's pause with that sentence for a moment and discuss it.
I love working and reading SFF. I know that not every SFF book on the shelves (albeit digital ones nowadays) is not going to be for me. I'm not going to enjoy every story equally and there are even some bestsellers I've purchased and DNF (did not finish). That's just personal preference with regard to reading tastes--we all have them!
I can't say a book is bad if it's a bestseller and beloved by thousands of people—that's not how that works! But I can say that personally, I did not enjoy it for any number of reasons: maybe I didn't like the prose; maybe I felt the pacing was not fast enough; maybe I just couldn't create an emotional connection to the main characters; maybe I just didn't find the main character interesting.
Remind yourself that just because you got a rejection, that doesn't mean you should quit.
It could mean, however, that you should take another look at either your query letter or your manuscript to see if there are tweaks or changes you could make. I had a discussion with an author recently and they told me that they had sent dozens and dozens of queries and had only ever gotten form rejections, nothing substantive for them to be able to build on and make changes from. If this sounds like it could be you then one of a few things might be happening:
1) Your query letter is not hooking the agent.
2) Your sample pages are not hooking the agent.
3) You're getting unlucky finding the right person to represent you.
We're going to get very subjective here, so please don't take this as biblical and raze your entire manuscript to start from scratch just because of a few words on this blog. Option 3: being unlucky with finding the right advocate could always be what's happening with your current project being queried. But we also have to ignore option 3 because it's pure happenstance and there's not any advice I can give you about it!
Let's instead use an example and say that you've sent 100 queries to 100 different agents, all of whom specifically work in the genre of your writing (because I can't tell you how many projects I reject that aren't for me [if you're reading this and you're writing a traditional memoir, please don't send it to me; graphic memoir does not mean graphic in content]).
With that assumption, let's think about what you, as the writer should do. You've gotten 100 form rejections, and no one has asked to see your sample pages. How many of those agents asked, in your query materials, for you to include sample pages? If none of them, well, then it might be obvious that you need to work on your query letter. If all of them, then it becomes a bit more muddled--do you edit your query letter or manuscript or both?
In this case, 100 queries-100 rejections, I'd say that you definitely want to take another look at your query letter and potentially want to take another look at your manuscript. Get some extra eyes, that you trust, on both of them to give you feedback.
"But Matt," you ask, "What if it's only 50 queries / rejections? What about 25? Or 10?"
This is why this is subjective. If you've received 10 rejections, then keep going; 25, still keep going. 50? Now we're getting more into that range where you need to think about making changes.
So at what exact point should you make edits to your manuscript? Well the ideal answer is before you start querying. I've said it before, but please don't send me the first finished draft of your story. Why? Because you haven't edited the project as a whole and you haven't done the work yet. Congratulations for having written and completed a manuscript, that's fantastic! But you're not done, not by half.
A query letter is easier to edit because of its length, so start there. And if as you're querying, you're getting lots of requests, then you should feel proud because your query letter is doing exactly what it's supposed to: it is engaging agents and making them want to read more.
If an agent asks for a partial or full manuscript and eventually passes, it's okay if you want to reach out and ask why. But please remember that have a lot on our plates, too, so if we don't respond, that's okay, too.
All of this is subjective, and it's hard. There is no singular right way of querying and editing.
So let's wrap this up by actually answering the question we started with: When should you, the writer, rewrite or make edits on your query letter or manuscript?
You should edit your query letter after you've done the work to make sure you're querying appropriate agents and you've received lots of rejections without many people asking to see more.
You should look to edit/rewrite your manuscript if you get several agents giving you the same editorial feedback, if agents have requested your material and continue to pass, and you know that you can make a stronger work by going back and putting the hours in to make it so.