We’re well into the summer, which means I’ve officially passed my one year anniversary of being on submission. Since a year feels kind of like it should be a milestone marker, I figured I’d pop onto the blog and share some thoughts about what I’ve learned from this last year and change on sub.
It’s been a long road, filled with a swirling maelstrom of emotions. Being on sub is pretty similar to querying, except you have far less control. Instead of you sending your book to agents, your agent is sending your book out to editors at publishing houses. Having a novel out on sub is a weird, isolating, magical and often stressful experience, and it’s one that gets talked about in the writing community a bit less than, say, querying or the run up to the release of a debut book once you’ve signed a deal. Despite spending years researching the traditional publishing process, querying, conventions and any number of other topics, sub was one part of the publishing journey that I knew basically nothing about before I was in it. I’ve met a lot of writers who felt similarly.
However I’ve since discovered plenty of other amazing writers who have talked about their experience on submission. Which is great. The more that information is shared to remove some of the mystery surrounding these crucial aspects of the writing career path, the better. So I guess this me trying to add a little more to that.
Long post ahead!
You’ll learn a hundred new ways of looking after your mental health…and periodically fail at all of them. One thing you’ll hear pretty consistently from most people who’ve been on sub for any amount of time is how emotionally challenging it can be. Unless you’re in the lucky minority whose books sell very quickly (it does happen, rarely), it’s totally normal to go through all sorts of emotions while on sub. Mitigating those feelings can often feel like running on a treadmill, where stressors pop up and in response you discover new ways of keeping yourself grounded, healthy, and focused during this time. But no matter how well you do at it, you’ll inevitably have days where you don’t feel great and question every life choice you’ve ever made. That’s okay, it’s normal, and it’s happened to pretty much every single writer I’ve talked to who’s been on sub. Being gentle with yourself in those moments is so important.
Develop/fine tune your writing process and habits. Working with your natural biorhythms can be a game changer. I often write fiction at night and have always gravitated toward that. When I accepted that and worked with it instead of telling myself that I “wasn’t a real writer” if I didn’t wake up at 5am to write or force myself onto a rigid schedule, it made writing much easier. Mileage may vary here, and your needs as a writer can and often do change as the years pass, but at the end of the day, the right thing for you as a writer is whatever gets you writing.
“At the end of the day, the right thing for you as a writer is whatever gets you writing.”
Honing your ability to discern actionable editorial feedback, trends in feedback from rejections, and what to let roll off your shoulders. This can often be much easier said than done. A general rule of thumb is to not take any one particular bit of criticism too deeply on submission, with a few crucial caveats.
- If the critique resonates with you on a gut level, either when you first receive it or months later when you realize that thing you dismissed outright because they were talking about your baby was actually a pretty good idea. If you feel it could make the story better, and hearing the criticism helps you realize how that could be the case, then it’s always worth paying attention to.
- If you see a through line in the rejections. These can range from easily decipherable to opaque and anywhere in between.
To give a few examples from my own experience, my novel is a 240k word adult epic fantasy. I know the market well enough, and designed this book intentionally enough as a doorstopping tome that I was confident in it, but always expected to receive length rejections. One day I’ll talk more about that, but suffice it to say that we did get some rejections that cited length, primarily from smaller publishers. This was an easy through line to spot, but also one I knew not to worry about unless it was a blanket response from everyone (which it wasn’t).
However, you might also find yourself in a position where you’re getting different, sometimes conflicting feedback. This is actually a very good thing, even if it can feel confusing. It means different aspects of your work are resonating with different people, and that there is not necessarily an easily identifiable weak point in the book. I once got two rejections on the same day; one said the equivalent of “I loved the characters but couldn’t get into the plot” while the other said “The plot was compelling but I didn’t connect with the characters.” That’s a great example of non-actionable feedback, because it’s clearly a matter of personal preference.
However, after getting a few more rejections, I did notice a common complaint that was never worded exactly the same, but amounted to one consistent idea: that the story wasn’t immediately gripping from page one. It’s a door-stopping epic fantasy tome, and is set up for a longer payoff…but as I thought about this, I did see a way to improve the book that could help with that. The more feedback you get on submission, the more you hone your ability to discern the difference between the actionable feedback, and the kind you don’t need to sweat over.
Either way, it’s good to at least think on all of it. Even if it’s not actionable, there may still be something to be learned. And an editor took the time to give it to you, after all!
Communication is key. When in doubt, talk to your agent. If they’re good at what they do, you’ll often leave feeling better than you started even if you’re discussing difficult topics. You’ll be figuring out the dynamic of this relationship while on submission as well, and good communication is an extremely important foundation. Learning your agent’s communication style, how it meshes with yours, and discussing things is crucial.
Learning to work with agents could be its own post, but since I don’t know when I’ll get to that, I’ll just say there are plenty of good places out there that discuss it in depth. The Bookends Literary Agency YouTube channel is a personal favorite, and sci-fi author Michael Mammay’s blog has plenty of good stuff on the topic as well.
Make writer friends! Good communication extends way beyond your agent. In general, I’m a huge supporter of the idea that meeting other writers is pretty much always a good thing. We’ve all come to this crazy writing path for different reasons, from different places, and with different goals, but the mere fact that we’re all here means that none of us are alone. It’s great to make writer friends for your sanity (and your career).
I think a good piece of advice is to connect with other writers at the same stage or slightly ahead of you…but really, it’s just good to make friends with anyone! I’m a big proponent of leading with just being a human being first. I used to cringe at the idea of networking, almost treating it like a dirty word because the idea of connecting with people with business aims felt fake or something. But really, networking is about being a person who wants to meet other people working in your field, and just being nice, professional, and kind. Being mindful of how you can help each other out becomes a lot easier when you’re not thinking of it like business levers, but instead as people you know whose work you want to support, or hope might one day be willing to help support you. Note the order of those two things. No one enjoys when someone comes hard at them with the asks without first establishing a relationship (unless it’s your literal job, like you work in PR. But even then, those are relationships too.) Remember that every person you meet is…a person. Like it or not, publishing is a relationship driven business, and one of the best ways to build relationships is to just be supportive of your community and those in it.
Speaking of networking, sub is a great time to work on your author platform. Sub is the perfect time for you to stretch your proverbial legs and get a feel for what it would be like to manage your online presence as an author. How would you want to organize things? How often would you like to blog, to send mailing list blasts, to post to social media? Which of those tools do you even want to utilize?
These kinds of questions will need fine tuning continuously throughout your career, but being on sub is a great place to start thinking about them if you haven’t already. A massive platform is absolutely not necessary to get a fiction book deal. The book has to speak for itself, and the biases of the market also play a huge role. That said, if you have an attractive social media presence (that doesn’t mean just numbers, but how you handle your presence), it can only look good to publishers. Same for having a mailing list, and all those other marketing things that keep writers up at night. You don’t have to do them all, but it’s good to decide what you want to do, and sub is a perfect time figure it out.
You’ll have time to obsess. Which can make it the best time for re-evaluating aspects of your career…and also the worst. My rule of thumb is when I catch myself thinking in circles, it’s probably time to go do something else. Like…go for a walk. Or look at something other than a screen.
Keep working however you can. One of the most common pieces of sub advice I see is “write your next book.” And if you can do that, yeah, that is one of the best possible things you can do on sub. But even more important than writing a next book is just to keep writing, period. Whether it’s a novel, short stories, articles, blog posts, novellas, whatever; each does different things for your craft and career. Any writing is better than no writing.
That said if you do need a break, be kind to yourself. Recognize burnout and your natural reactions when you actually want to sit down and write. Does sitting at your computer make you feel like a weight is pressing down on you, and your mind is working through mud? Sometimes taking breaks, resting, or refueling the well is the best thing you can do for your writing. Your mental stamina and capacity are the fuel on which your writing business runs. Like any other bodily function it is not infinite, but it does recharge. For my money, learning to manage that resource is one of the most crucial aspects of developing a writing career.
Over the course of the past six months I’ve transitioned to a full time writing/editorial job while simultaneously continuing to work on novels, and the thing I’ve found most challenging about it is balancing this physical capacity for writing. It’s helped me come to realize that when you’re in a position to put your all into writing, eventually you’ll still hit a point where your mind simply can’t push itself anymore; when it just shuts off, and lets you know the work is done for that session. This can vary day by day, week by week, project by project…but in general I’ve found a much more harmonious and productive writing lifestyle by learning to recognize and work with those natural limits than to constantly batter against them and wish they were higher, believing I wasn’t capable, or dedicated, or some other not enough while the real answer was simply that I needed rest. It never ceases to amaze me how much easier a writing problem I spent hours staring glassy-eyed at when I was exhausted becomes after a night of sleep.
Speaking of being kind to yourself: Life happens. Remember that regaining momentum after a break is one of the hardest parts of an artistic career, so be patient with yourself. This is true for any career or activity or hobby, really. What stays in motion tends to stay in motion, what’s at rest wants to stay at rest. It’s why we all hate Mondays so much. (Don’t lie, you know you do.)
This has gotten pretty long, so I’ll leave you with this final piece of advice, one of the best I was ever given. Just. Keep. Going.
When I was a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, I had an older co-worker who had been involved in various creative careers for most of her life; writing, dancing, sailing around the world and teaching, a whole lot of things. She shared a piece of advice with me that I’ve never forgotten. “The one common trait that every single successful creative has is that they just kept going.” They refused to give up on their dream, their passion, this thing they loved so much that they couldn’t bear to not be doing it. Careers often take turns we don’t expect, for the good and the bad. They’re like life that way. The only certain way to fail at something is to give up.
If you’re on sub right now, or contemplating this path, keep your head up. The road can be daunting, but you don’t walk it alone.