Blog

What It’s Like to Be On Sub

What’s it like to have your manuscript on submission to publishers? How do you make it through the process?

This is the third time I’ve been “on sub.” No Small Thing is circulating to a select group of editors, thanks to the pitch work of Tara Gelsomino, my agent.

I’m sharing this because I believe it “pays” to be transparent–to tell the truth of your experience out of a spirit of abundance. There’s room enough for everyone. And yes, I say that even though the very experience I’m about to describe is indeed built on a scarcity model.

Often we only hear these stories after someone’s “made it.” They’re the Antarctica explorer assuring you that we can all make it out, now that they’re back stateside sitting warm before the fire. They’re the miner emerged into the light after months underground, and they’ve had a bath and a good meal. That’s very encouraging and inspiring, for sure.

I also think it’s important to tell you, right smack in the middle of things, that you will survive. It’s important to tell you that there are ways and means and attitudes to help you with staying the course.

Just a note: my video is different than this post below, which has a lot more ruminations. Either way, I hope one or both makes you feel better as you weather submissions!

Embrace the Wait.

 

Know this process is pretty much the lottery and the NBA draft, all rolled into one. So it’s going to take a long time, if it happens.

If. More on that below.

My average amount of time on sub is about a year. Before shelving, by the way, not before publication. For more on this twist and turn, see below.

Find Something to Do.

 

Find a project NOW. You have to. If you’re like me, you probably have a million ideas you want to develop. Go find one and get going.

And I mean really get going. Commit to morning time. Generate pages. Once you see how much you can do in 20-minute writing sprints, with coffee and a non-judgmental mindset, you’ll love yourself and your writing again. 

No one can take your creativity from you.

If writing is what you’re born to do, you’ll get distracted by the shiny new object of the gem you’re mining. I find so much joy in my new WIP. 

 

Wait for It…Wait for It…Is There a Pattern?

 

You will be mystified by feedback you get, so don’t trip at the first rejection. Or the third or fourth. Wait till you have 10-12 rejections to look for patterns. And know this: there might not be any!

For one of my books while on sub a few years ago, I got equally “love the voice” and “don’t love the voice.” The standard phrase for the don’t love feedback was “I didn’t connect with the voice.”

You’ll also hear things like a marketing team not being sure how to sell your work in a crowded market. You may hear more of an “It’s me, not you,” and that might be true. You might hear several compliments, followed by that statement.

You also don’t know how much of your book got read by each editor. You don’t know whether your book got read on a day when, as Liz Gilbert and others remind us, someone’s dog died. Your book might be the tenth manuscript a poor editor has to rifle through in order to start her weekend. Know this: editors are drowning in pages and words, absolutely drowning. I have huge empathy for this as a former English teacher who once carried an albatross of papers, and as someone who in her day job goes through not only close to 100 emails but also edits and reads tons of text, and has to create tons of text on demand.

I get it. In this review process, your book has to literally leap at an editor and grab them in the sweet spot of their attention. So three things might be true at once:

  • Your book isn’t their taste, style, preference for voice or topic. The plot, however interesting, and the characters, however awesome, just aren’t they actually would read about, as everyday readers. So no matter how good, your work isn’t going to pull them in.
  • Your book isn’t something they’ve ever seen, and they can’t put it into any category or shelf easily, and so they have to stop. How in the world can you get an acquisitions team or marketing on board to make this happen? Trust me: if you’ve ever worked with faculty or anyone in an office, it’s not like you can just decree things and get a whole crew of people on board. You have to strategically time and plan for change. Your book might be a big change of pace and attention for an already busy crew of people.
  • Your book isn’t something they want to read because they literally do not feel like reading right now, at all.

 

Face Your Fears

 

In her great piece, “What It’s Really Like to Go on Submission to Publishers,” author Diana Urban shared these observations:

“An author discussed being on submission for 15 months and called this a ‘worst case scenario.’….I ended up going on submission four times with three different agents over 4.5 years before landing my first book deal. And that’s not even the worst case scenario. The worse case scenario is that it never happens. At all.”

Get the facts: most authors don’t get picked up after one week on submission. Most authors don’t go to auction. Most authors don’t, don’t, don’t have all the luck in the world. Most of us will strive every day of our lives to get our words out there.

And get the facts about your work: is it your most polished version you and your agent could produce?

I am happy that I can say yes when it comes to No Small Thing. I know further editing by a publisher would be key, but I also know that we’ve got a damn good version done. There’s been enough time for it to simmer, and enough eyes on it, both agent and beta reader, and experts in the fields of sports and journalism, and education, that it’s something to be proud of.

It’s possible your manuscript needs more spit and shine. Be open to that.

 

Happens to Every Damn One of Us

 

Look at your favorite Netflix or HBO or Amazon series suddenly cancelled and realize it can happen to the rich and famous, too. Nothing is for certain, forever.

(Greg and I are still mourning that The OA was cancelled. WHY. Or how about Deadwood getting killed off…but then resurrected in a movie, thank you. HELL YEAH.)

I’ve got a published friend who’s gotten the brass rings of agent + a two-book deal and he still gets his ideas rejected by editors. No one is golden forever, even if they glistered for a hot moment.

Embrace these truths and say to yourself a million times, “It is what it is. What will I do now?”

 

Just ask Trixie

Don’t Believe the Scarcity Mavens

 

You may think that you are your rejections. Well, news flash: your book is not the no’s you get. Your book is your art. It could be a shitty first draft or a masterpiece in its most polished revision, but it has a reason to be. It has a RIGHT to be in this world. Do not doubt that.

In most cases when on sub, it’s your most polished revision yet. So you need to trust that and listen to the stories of all the nos that various authors you adore once got–yep, the JK Rowling’s and other fantabulous beauteous souls who heard no and no all over again.  

Whenever I feel the tremors of doubt, they’re usually thanks to a very American #winning culture that emphasizes being in the One Percent of Success. That’s the Scarcity Model Folks talking, the ones who want you to believe there’s only one way to succeed, and that they’re the Chosen Few.

 

 

Another news flash: I survived my beloved Minerva book being on sub 14 months and getting shelved. I’m still here. And guess what? Lately I’m also chatting with my agent about my new synopsis for the book. So we shall see. It’s possible Minerva may be that phoenix ready to burst forth, or she might just settle into a pile of ashes. I keep my mind flexible on this point. I put so much love into that manuscript since 2013, but it is what it is right now. It’s original form might not have been as world ready as I thought. Or maybe it was boot camp for this book, No Small Thing.

Check out Sarah Enni’s story on this episode of 88 Cups of Tea and particularly how her debut novel, Tell Me Everything, was a true labor of love across many twists and turns she could have never imagined.

 

Luck & Timing: It’s a Thing

 

When last year I told a wise author of 15 books how my agent had left the business, and then said that I figured a writer’s journey was one-third talent, one-third persistence, and one-third luck and timing, she said,

“Oh, honey, it’s more than 50% luck and timing!”

You can’t control luck and timing. Sure, your persistence can put you in front of more people more times. But when you see the get-rich-quick stories of publication, the love-at-first-sight by 20 editors all vying for a book, know a few things:

  • These authors may have the luck to have imagined a story at just the right time in the industry:
    • when publishers were either open to what “was” (in the way that marketing teams can sometimes look backwards at what’s sold well as they make their prognostications and offers on books)
    • or open to what “will be”–and by that I mean, willing to take a risk on you and your untested premise.
  • These authors may have the luck of knowing someone in the industry who knows someone. Six degrees of separation? Yeah, maybe! But try one or two and boom, a book might just be moved in front of someone. This is why I’m a big believer in helping others, not competing with others. Every time I reach out to help someone else, that pay-it-forward magic just keeps a-swirlin’ in our universe. Our Universe.
  • These authors may have the strategy and business ambition that you do not (so here we’re back to talent) to actually survey the market, see what’s wanted, and make it happen–quickly. That’s a beauteous combo plate of talent + + persistence + timing. I can’t say I’ve got that magic. What I can say is I’ve got the trust and love in my spirit to write what’s knocking at the door of my heart.

I write about feisty girls who want to be investigative journalists and sports reporters. Yep, it’s a unique thing because I bet you can’t say you’ve read a young-adult book just like that, can you?

I like being a unicorn. They bring good luck.

 

Plan on Being Nimble

 

If this is all true, the luck and timing and the reality of a no, then Jackie be nimble, Jackie be quick: you might have to self-pub right over that candlestick! It’s what I might do with all my discarded gems someday. I don’t know. I’ve proven I can do it and I might just do it again.

 

Ask Your Agent for Help

 

Your agent should give you updates on the submission process (I get a weekly one), and your agent should tell you who they’re pitching to, and when.

Your agent should also be there for you should you need a pep rally. Tara Gelsomino is the best: she reminds me that she loves the story she’s hustling so hard to sell. She reminds me that even if we end up getting a few rejections, know we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.

 

 

I talk more about what a great agent does in my post, Houston, We Have an Agent!

It’s All Going to Be Okay

 

You will hear some agents tell you (and I did hear this when I was seeking a new one) that they can’t sub out a book that’s already been on sub to 10-11 editors. They will say they don’t have the vision, or the contacts, or maybe it’s the time, to try for other editors. That’s important information when vetting an agent: when do you consider submission over? How many tries does it take for you to walk away?

Since my luck in the draw fell out the way it it did–starting to go on sub right as my agent leaves the business–I lucked out getting an agent who’s not concerned about that.

And here’s the thing: IT’S OKAY IF WE DON’T SELL. You know why? I mean, yes, I’m full of ambition and desire to see these words in the world, but I also know No one can stop me from writing and making magic with my words.

It will happen. My next set of words will be seen. I just can’t tell you when and how.

 

 

It’s possible you as author won’t have tolerance for more than 10 rejections, either, so you better take your own pulse on that. Maybe your best agent pairing is with someone who can make the process like ripping off a bandaid for you. Maybe submission literally rips you up. I know artists in all fields who suffer hard at every no, and they can’t rewire themselves. They can build up scar tissue, sure, but it’s just their nature to change. They stop creating if they get too many more doors, walls, and nos.

Me, I can go for miles. We can get into why that is, but maybe that’s also my unicorn nature.

I’m blessed by my teaching background and current other projects in the world to know every day that I’m more than my book.

I’ve got so much to give!

Could that be your mantra, too?

It’s all going to be okay. Because there’s Big Magic, everywhere.

If you need some music to help you meditate on this truth, listen to Greg’s song that’s basically a lullaby. Wait for the soothing surprise at the end!

 

 

 

Handling the Fear Factor

To self-publish or not to self-publish: that is a question that haunts many nervous authors nowadays who are steeped in queries with no response. While we wonder if agents have read our sincere and severely-crafted missives, we also wonder whether we should persist in writing more of them or hunker down with a plan to go it alone.

Image found here

A funny thing happened on my way to self-publishing: just as I began to refine a serious plan, I get a request for my full manuscript from an agent. I want to get excited, I do, but then the fears come creeping in.

It’s easy to let them rule you. You’ve been around this block. Why try again? Are your instincts worth anything?

Questions about my self-publishing ideas pound me, too: will readers think self-pub is for hacks–and all my friends who’ve been following my journey think I’ve given up? Can I learn to market my wares? When will I find the time? 

But you do try–both the queries and the self-pub plan–because that’s what real writers do; they don’t stop. They also get information. Like Hope Clark’s primer of wisdom about the facts, just the facts, ma’am, on self-publishing versus traditional. The self-pub plan I’m building is full of strategies to tackle the fearful unknown. These strategies are gleaned from a wealth of great information on the Internet. We live in a world-wide library, folks–there ain’t nothing we can’t learn! Check out this helpful list of tips from Meghan Ward, too. I’ll elaborate on this plan in another post.

Expect that as you conduct your research, the fearful questions will pile up, and that’s a natural part of the process of change. Write the questions down, and approach each like a research paper in high school. Make notes. If you go the agent querying route again, as I am, you’ll start thinking:

How many is too many simultaneous queries? How much research should I do on each agent–should I put ten hours into an agent search, write a query, only to never hear? (And not write in the meantime–there’s the rub!) Did the fact I started with a synopsis of the novel instead of “why I want you as an agent” deter the agent reading this–is that why I never heard? Should I have gone into more detail about why I want this agent or does it sound like flattery? Do I sound too formal, stilted, not at all like my novel’s voice–when many model queries out there are playful and “cool”? 

When you’ve written as many queries as I have, these questions have the whiff of the rhetorical, unanswerable. From what I’ve researched, there are different opinions about how many queries to put out simultaneously; some say five to ten, then hunker down and wait. But if only 10% respond to you, why not double or triple that amount?

Research can tell you some things but talking to a person tells you much more; so I choose to limit my research per agent to an hour. I have a personal rubric that vets an agent based on preferred genres, client list, and statements made in interviews. An agent who has a web presence whether interviews or a personal or agency blog is someone I can get to know fairly quickly. The last criterion is that the agent accepts e-queries. It’s also a psychological strategy to limit my research: why get too invested? If the agent meets my criteria, then it’s worth sending out an email. He or she doesn’t have to be my perfect match on paper, whatever that is, and again, I can’t tell that from online research. I will be able to tell from a phone call where I ask good questions (see below).

Then there is the fact that agents who receive 50+ queries a day have an inbox beyond full, and that may be the one good reason no one cares if your synopsis comes first or last in your query; the point is, the agent may just not have time to read yours. And if you’ve done your research well, the agent will tell you exactly how he or she wants the query on the agency page.

In other words, there aren’t great answers; what you have above are “Lyn’s Answers.” There isn’t a sure path or an Obi Wan to mentor us through this. You have to pose the questions–to query or not to query, to self-publish or not to self-publish–to the universe and then let the answers rise as they simmer in your brain. When you know, you know, as a friend used to say.

I know that I would love to hear from a particular agent, but that’s not in my hands. What is in my hands is the best query I can write, the best research I can do in the short time I have, and the best self-pub launch plan I can craft. And this time, I’m really not scared.

If you pay attention to the blogosphere, it appears many other writers are feeling what I’m feeling, and even agents: go forth, bold writer, and try thy way in the wilderness. Agent Jenny Bent has an interesting perspective regarding books that fall between genres (Wendy Redbird Dancing, anyone?). Ones like mine, that are YA + women’s fiction, are often ones publishers don’t understand because they aren’t sure how to market them. So if you are an intrepid soul with energy to get your work out to the masses, have at it: you might find the market is there for you.

I also have a great list of questions should an agent call. Based on my last experience, I will now tackle fears head on by asking the questions below.

When in doubt, and when fears rise like fog around me, I start to write. Write down potential ideas, write down potential plans. I may discard 99% of them or never get the opportunity to make them happen, but at least I’ve talked myself off the ledge.

  • What do you like about my manuscript? What would you change?
  • Does it have potential as a hybrid work–women’s and YA? Is this more women’s fiction or YA?
  • How close is the manuscript to submission? What revisions would you suggest?
  • Do you see film potential?
  • Do you see foreign rights potential?
  • How many publishers would you submit to, and which ones?
  • Will you share the submission list and responses from editors?
  • What YA or women’s fiction have you represented that you are particularly fond of, and what do you think is the secret to their success?
  • Who would the primary contact be–you or your assistant?
  • What is your response time to emails and phone calls?
  • How often would we be in touch?
  • What’s your expectation for a next book?
  • What advice do you typically give authors as they build their careers?

The possibility of talking with a successful agent once again is a nerve-wracking premise. But armed with some questions, I know I’ll be okay.

In the meantime, the self-pub ideas simmer, and I’ll be sharing those soon. Vote at the next post on my brand ideas; I’ll need this whether I self or traditionally publish.

Will you self-publish? Have you already? Or are you waiting to hear from an agent? How do you handle your fears in the process?


The Rules of Survival

Yes, I do have a long-term relationship with fear…when I’m writing, I am not thinking about my readers at all. I am thinking about my characters–projecting myself into them as fully as I can. And I am also thinking about the dark places in myself and in my life.

I use my art–the writing of books that are filled with characters trying to cope with fear, injustice, and sometimes outright human evil–as a way to grapple with those same things that I perceive in the world around me. My writing always knows what is going on in the darkest parts of my soul, long before I do. I trust it to do so. And over time and many books, I’ve realized that this is not the burden I first thought. It is a gift.

When in doubt, Sonny says, “Hide your face.”

Nancy Werlin, author of THE RULES OF SURVIVAL

When in doubt about your future in the publishing industry, thou shalt do one of five things:

  • sleep the day away, in a tight ring, like thy cat;
  • read other YA while resenting other authors for being so accomplished and godlike;
  • eat recklessly while popping Benadryl, Lact-Aid, or Bean-o because your digestive system can’t seem to swallow food or the task of writing; 
  • cry over an episode of “My Fair Wedding with David Tutera”;
  • or stop feeling so damn sorry for yourself over a very First-World problem: having to rewrite your novel.
And as your Better Self takes over, note that the YA book you just read–THE RULES OF SURVIVAL by Nancy Werlin–is an excellent model of a tight, focused, fast-moving plot, dominated by the Big Ideas of fear and self-preservation. You can learn much from Werlin and her 13 year-old character of Matthew who must dodge a sociopathic mother and protect his two younger sisters.
Read it. You won’t put it down. The primal themes; the simple, direct sentences; and the adult tone of a young boy are completely believable. This is a young man who doesn’t have time for flights of fancy and eloquent diction. He needs to make it into the next day, in one piece, with his siblings.
It struck me on page 100 that I hadn’t even asked why we never hear about his friends. It seemed strange, but only for a second–as in, is this an author oversight?--and then I found the justification that a reader who believes in the story often does. I told myself, “People surviving abusive situations often shut down and hide their trauma.” And I didn’t care there weren’t a host of other characters. I didn’t need Matthew’s peers. I just needed him, Callie, and Emmy–the kids; and then the adults: the crazy mom, Nikki; the aunt, Bobbie; and the two men that might or might not help–Murdoch and Ben.
The Rules of Survival for the publishing industry are what you do after you get over yourself and your tender feelings. The Rules of Survival are simply 
  • read a lot of great YA; 
  • seek the feedback of smart readers and fellow writers; 
  • listen to your agent; 
  • and then do what your heart says after you get some distance from all that. 

As I send off a new synopsis to my agent, I will dig deep and take my cues from other authors who keep showing up to the desk. I’m still here, still writing, and this book ain’t dead yet.

Writing Prompts:
  • What incidents get you feeling incredibly sorry for yourself? And then later, do they get you feeling sorry for being so sorry? Write a piece called “Sorry.” 
  • Write a rant and a lament. Then write a Message Back to the Ranter, Courtesy of The Universe (or whatever power/force/spirit you believe in).
  • Nancy Werlin’s novel was inspired by an incident in a convenience store. She wrote a short story that eventually led to this novel. Think of a time when an incident between you and a stranger or an incident you’ve observed between strangers left you cold and marked by fear. Is there a story there?
  • Read Nancy Werlin’s quotation below about how she’s grown in her craft of writing and ask yourself to identify the level of skill you’ve developed in plotting, characterization, or other aspects of craft.
  • The Big Ideas of survival, fear, and aggression are compelling to us as readers; The Hunger Games with its worldwide popularity is yet another confirmation of what the people want. Is there an injustice or darkness you need to talk about but have dodged in your writing? Can you begin a page of the story that needs telling, and let the fear and aggression run amok, as much as they need to there?
I believe that each book teaches you how to write it. Each book requires skills that you did not previously possess. Readers of my first novel (Are You Alone on Purpose (Houghton, 1994; reprint forthcoming from Puffin, 2007)) can tell that I was then a poor plotter, for example. Readers of my second novel (The Killer’s Cousin (Delacorte, 1998)) can see that I did not know how to transition in time; I had to label my chapters with the date. I learned about writing action sequences in my third novel (Locked Inside (Delacorte, 2000)). I learned to work with a large cast of characters in Black Mirror (Dial, 2001). These are only small examples.


Think of a writer as being like a carpenter. The writer’s toolbox should grow over the years; her skills should increase. At first she can only build a rough toolshed; by the end of her career, if all goes well, she can build a castle–or a perfectly balanced Shaker cabinet.”


Nancy Werlin, in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith