Most of the time I got rejections that were a photocopy of a generic letter that began "Dear Author." Sometimes the photocopies were of a photocopy that had gotten turned in the copier at some point so that it ran in a blurry slant across the page. Sometimes the photocopies were printed two-up on a page, so they only needed to waste half a piece of paper on me. Sometimes all they did was scrawl "Not for me" or even worse, "No," on top of the query and then send it back to me in my self-addressed stamped envelope.
There was always an arc in my feelings towards these mysterious creatures. At first, I would feel just vaguely sick to my stomach. Then, as a few weeks passed, I began to believe that they were seriously considering it. Each day, I would become more certain that not only had they decided to take me on as a client, but they had probably mentioned me at lunch to an editor and a Hollywood producer and were putting together a fantastic package before they even called me. This period probably peaked at eight weeks. By week ten, if no form letter had come back, I was left with the slow, but sickening realization that not only were they probably not interested, but they were so not interested that they hadn't even bothered to write NO! on top of my query letter.
There were times someone requested a partial manuscript or even a full one. Some people advise turning a page toward the end upside down to see if they even read that far, but I think I was too nervous to do this. I didn't really want to know, just like I don't really want to know the results of some medical test I suspect are bad.
With the first book I wrote, an agent did call me one day and talk at length about the changes she would like to see in it. By that time I had come to the realization myself that the book needed a lot of work. People would say I had all the elements, I just needed to rework them. This is like being told after you build a house that you have the lumber and the windows and doors, you just need to tear the whole thing down and start again. I didn't realize how unusual it was for an agent to call. Maybe I should have followed up on it. But by that time I was in love with my second book, which I was writing. Then I started sending that book out. And getting no love back.
Then finally there came the day when an agent read my query letter, and sent me a letter asking for the full manuscript. A miracle! Getting a request for a full manuscript was rare. Most people would just ask for the first three chapters, the first chapter, sometimes as few as the first 10 pages.
But the miracle grew exponentially. She called me and offered to be my agent. She said my book was wonderful. She said she must be the first person who had ever looked at it. In reality, she was about the 50th. I hesitated and said no she wasn't the first. Her tone changed. How many people had looked at it? Five or six, I said, lying through my teeth, while a corner of my brain yelled at me to shut up!
To this day, I still don't think she knows how many other people hadn't loved me at all. We have been together for 14 years, I think.
A few years ago, my submission and rejection file was actually part of a film clip that aired across the nation as part of a syndicated financial report that a lot of local TV newscasts show. I gave advice to would-be authors. They filmed me looking through it. It was just as painful even then.