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!




What’s Your Finest Work?

What is your finest work? I’m not talking about masterpieces or magnum opuses. I mean, what is the day-to-day grind that you embrace with joy. What do you work hard at without regret, no matter what the results?  What work do you miss or crave?

Elizabeth George sums up my finest work, what writing is for me:MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

“A lot of writing is simply showing up. A lot of writing is being willing to show up day after day, same time and same place. A lot of writing is being able to put the work first simply because it is the work. A lot of writing is being able to delay gratification.

…Authors are those guys who hope to get rich quick with a big sale to a big publisher followed by a lucrative movie deal. They write the same novel over and over and they declare at the beginning of their careers that if they don’t get published, they’ll give it up.

 Writers, on the other hand, are those guys who’d write anyway. They have to breathe, after all. They have to live.”

Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.

I’m wondering what makes you live.

This post came to me at the most unglamorous of moments: scrubbing the orange mold off my shower walls. It was a grimy, slimy job I’d avoided for months (and I won’t tell you how many). As I submitted to the work, I thought about the story of a friend whose roommate never cleaned the tub, to the point that there was a black tub with white footprints where she stood each day. Fortunately, it was a two-bathroom flat. I comforted myself with the fact I wasn’t that reluctant to clean. But as I worked on the nooks and crannies of the yucky job, fighting not just mold but mineral stains and rust, I thought how hard it is to get excited about this work because I never will be able to get the tub to anywhere near sparkling, no matter how hard I scrub.

But writing…writing is not only the magic of finding the right word in the moment, and then escaping into a phrase, person, or scene you’ve made; it’s also the belief that the story can be a glistening pearl someday. The work is long and slow and there is always sacrifice. But it lifts me up, makes me a better person, and always gives back. I write to live and live to write.

I Have a Question

Random questions from my week:

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  • Why do some people’s sneezes sound like a raspberry? A sputter explosion? (Mine, for the record, sound like a dog barking.)
  • Why do some people keep their cranky child in a cafe when it’s clear the child wants to leave? And another question: when did public spaces become our living rooms–a place to let it all hang out–rather than a place of privilege we share with others?
  • Why did the employee of Trader Joe’s thank me for admitting I broke a carton of eggs? Who doesn’t report the mess she made and ask to pay for it?
Rant over. Rants are ugly but perhaps not so bad in the form of rhetorical, unanswerable questions. 
Literature at its best is the answer to a question told in images, characters, and events. While rants can sound alarm bells and beg for much-needed mercy and attention, they can also lose the opportunity for readers’ best thinking and grappling with the question themselves. Screaming and spewing anger from the rooftops isn’t literature. Art becomes diatribe, no longer experience but polemic. 
The best teaching is also question-driven rather than fact-driven. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two ground-breaking educators, talk about Essential Questions: those dilemmas, challenges, and open-ended problems of a discipline that drive scientists, artists, engineers, philosophers, doctors, architects, environmentalists–any profession–to quest after new answers. Our kids, just like our readers, should spend classroom time in the pursuit of the Big Questions. The challenge is in making the experience, whether literary or educational, an engaging and compelling trip. 
Milan Kundera talks of the novel this way:

The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything…The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.

If we comprehend life as a question, and if we make art from our questions, then we engage in a great act of faith. We believe that answers will appear; that revelations will ensue; that God, the Universe, Spirit, or Energy is on our side, and that there is not randomness but order to be revealed.


  • How does a child survive chaos and abuse?
  • How do we define spirituality?
  • How does a self-proclaimed freak make friends?

Apparently Padgett Powell wrote a whole book of questions that might be a great start for those of us stuck in the answers.

What questions are you asking in your writing? In your teaching? And are you doing your best while in cafes and grocery stores to not rant at your fellow man?

Writing Prompts

  • Story idea: A boy who asks irritating questions finds himself ostracized. Where? By whom? When? Why?
  • Story idea: A teacher comes into her classroom one morning and finds a strange question on her board. Unravel a story of who wrote it and why and the consequences of the question writing for students, faculty, administration, and parents. 
  • Write a list of 10 unanswerable questions running the gamut from love to medicine, relationships to house cleaning, any stickler queries that needle you when you can’t sleep. Whatever keeps you up at night, whatever’s made you wonder where in the hell the answer is, write those questions down. Now which one would make a great story? A great novel?
  • Take those questions to people you trust and discuss answers that work and don’t work. Write a poem, short story, or essay with one of the answers.
  • Write about a person who never asks you any questions.
  • Ask yourself what questions you’ve asked lately. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable in a space of “not knowing”? Write about that.
  • In what place in your life are you most open to asking questions? The least? Why? Is there room for breakthrough–or at the very least, writing about it–to get to the other side of your lock-step, paradigm-stuck thinking?
  • Take one of my questions above–about sneezes, kids in cafes, or miscreants in grocery stores–and start a story. 
  • Check out the writing prompts I share at my post, “Ask and Ye Shall Irritate.”

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

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Some make the argument that good writers should “make it look easy.” In other words, don’t carp about all the hard work it took to get the manuscript in the gorgeous shape it now boasts. Don’t ever show the seamy underbelly of revisions, cross-outs, ripped cuticles, and gray hair. Your readers don’t really need to see all that.

I disagree. If people think your art is magic (muse-driven and easily wrought) then they don’t get art, at all. At certain times and places–your book signing, on your web site–I think it’s fair to showcase the drafts that got away, the revisions that got dumped, and the hours it took to get the glossy draft your readers now enjoy. Pull back the curtain on the perfect and say, “There’s a bit of slime back here…”

If audiences don’t know the truth, they are likely to think, as I’ve heard too often in reference to the art of teaching: “Hell, anyone can do it!” They may well decide it’s not worth paying the price. Hey, can you spot me a copy of your book/CD…can you get me a free ticket to the show?

Never mind the ego that seems to have taken many Americans prisoner in this age of self-publishing: I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling/John Grisham/Toni Morrison/Stephen King/Malcolm Gladwell! Check out my first draft! 

The man behind the curtain–the neurotic artist full of woes and struggles, never mind a history of disappointment–that man matters very much.

This said, I want to make the argument that writers and other independent artists (I would place painters and other visual artists in this category) have it easier than those who need others to make art. The independence is all.  Why? Because you have no one but yourself to blame. Being married to a musician gives me this perspective, as does being the sister of an actress/producer. The group arts are a lot harder to sustain than the solo arts.

Writing is 95% solo. Sure, there’s working with agents and publishers; there are tours, speeches, and signings; there’s social marketing and comments on blogs. But every morning when I sit down to write, I only have Lyn Fairchild Hawks to hold accountable. I don’t lose momentum today if someone in my writers’ group failed to show last night. For my art to get done, I gotta do it, no excuses.

My husband is a musician dependent on at least four others in his band being able to

a) attend practice and show on time;
b) agree on singing the same songs;
c) practice those songs when no one’s looking;
d) assist with set-up and breakdown of sound equipment;
e) dress appropriately for the gig;
f) behave appropriately during the gig;
g) invest financially in a recording venture or new sound equipment;
h) and bring an audience to a show.

I’m leaving out a long, long list of other assumed professional behaviors that one would hope everyone would follow but don’t always appear.

Even with a strong group of musicians, a band leader faces these challenges or variations on them constantly because he prefers the sound that’s made by a group to his solo act. He is not merely artist but also manager, mediator, motivator, coach, etiquette trainer, and a thousand other roles that have nothing to do with songwriting, singing, and playing. Somedays, my biggest problem is believing in myself. Professional musicians don’t have much room for personal worries to get a performance going.

I won’t talk here about theater and its group dynamics, except to recommend you check out the series Slings and Arrows. Let’s just say that not everyone’s on the same page when it comes to putting up a play.

So, writers, what can we do? Stop complaining about how hard writing is, and just do it. I mean, if you’re an incredibly difficult, lazy, and irresponsible person, then maybe you do have something to moan about to a therapist, but if you have half a will and show up to the page, you’ve got an easier gig than some other artists.

And go support the local theater or musician playing near you. Listen and tip well. It took them a lot to get to that stage.

Writing Prompts

  • Who has it easier than you? Who has it harder? Why? Rant a little, and empathize a little. Describe two people’s lives in detail and explain why one has it easier and one has it harder than you.
  • Write about a time in your life when you had it harder than anyone or easier than anyone. How did you feel? What did you do with that difficulty or privilege? How do you see that past experience now?
  • Should one compare oneself to others, or is it a futile exercise? Why or why not?
  • Do you know others who work in different arts than you? What do you know of their lives? Step into their shoes and write a few paragraphs of a life through another’s eyes.
  • How hard is writing for you, on a scale of 1 to 10? Why? What makes it difficult for you to show up to the page? What makes it easy? 
  • Do you consider yourself a professional writer? If so, then what constitutes professional behavior? (You can start with the musician’s list above and see if any of these assumptions apply to the writing life.)
  • What are your writing goals for 2012? 
  • What are the  psychological and physical barriers to your writing or writing well? List them and brainstorm three solutions to each.
  • What arts different than yours do you resolve to support in 2012? Why?

What Do You Do When No One’s Looking?

“Champions are made when no one is looking… To me it means that if you want to excel, you have to do a lot on your own, outside the limelight. Over the years, I have learned how to work away from everyone else.”
–Justin Smith, NCAA championship golfer

Don’t call yourself “writer” if you ain’t writing new stuff or destroying old stuff in the quiet of your room and the chaos of your brain.

It’s easy to think writing is editing fully-formed pages, fanned out before an impressed audience that never believed you’d write that book. It’s easy to think that writing is submitting finished pages to a critique group or an editor, or that it’s querying. Some believe writing is taking down copious notes, even on the worst comments you get. But none of this is writing. These are the business tasks, the communication tasks, the prettying tasks–and all of them dependent on audience and human interaction. Writing, in its purest sense, is creating brand-new pages and ripping those up while you, one, remain the loneliest number.

When summer hits, when leaving the bed in the mornings is like bench pressing 50-plus pounds, when all you want to do is slouch through the heat with a margarita, you ask yourself, When will I find the energy to write? Will I ever write something new again? Do I want to write something new again? And even if I think my pages are crappy, do I dare rip them up

It’s hard when the limelight is off you–when no one remarks on your blog, when the agent is deep in your pages but not able to respond, when the submissions are in literary magazine inboxes but no

After six months of writing a novel and a year of revisions, I let HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT take a breather in the hands of agents and readers. I let my short stories on submission and my collection in the hands of the University of Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor contest rest there. And I make myself get back to work.

The sequel to my novel is already rearing its mischievous head. It wants to be all exploratory scene and snappy dialogue but devoid of character want–that hard yearning after ONE THING that makes a story race and carry its readers along.

Filed Under: writing process, writing truths