Welcome back to the Road Thus Far, an honest chronicle of what happens after you sell your debut novel.
Things in novel land have been going well lately. Some big exciting things are beginning to happen, things beyond just me staring at a computer screen, so this is all starting to feel alarmingly real. At this point, around a year before publication, I am starting to see marketing plans, cover ideas, and jacket copy. I also got my author photo sorted, which is a whole other blog post.
But this week, I am going to back track and talk about what it’s like to be on submission.
If you are not a writer currently chasing publication, you might not know what it means to be ‘on submission’. Submission is the term for the period of time while your manuscript has been submitted to publishers—either by you or your agent—and is being considered by editors for actual publication. It is essentially the step before the signing of the book contract, and involves a lot of waiting, obsessive email checking, and alternately playing out worst case scenarios and dreamy fantasies about seven figure book deals and bestsellers. And then it usually involves a lot of rejection, and hearing all the reasons your book is not suitable for publication.
In short, submission SUCKS. It sucks. It never gets better, it never gets easier, it just sucks.
I struggle with bad anxiety. My mother likes to remind me that everyone has anxiety, but I’ve also polled enough people in my life to know that my anxiety often goes above most definitions of normal. It can be overwhelming and impossible to deal with. It can also be irrational, merciless, and consuming.
When my novel went on submission in May of this year, I knew exactly what to expect because I’d already done it once before—I’d had another novel on submission for almost a year with dozens of publishers.
And none of them wanted it.
It was crushing. And made it incredibly difficult to access my rational side when my second book went out.
After two weeks of being on submission and being so anxious about it that my anxiety started to manifest in physical symptoms, I decided I needed to do something. A technique that sometimes works for me when I deal with anxiety is writing letters from my rational self to my irrational self. It gives me a chance to unapologetically access the calm pieces of my brain and let it speak to the part of me that is freaking out.
So this is the letter I wrote to myself while I was on submission, with the note “read this if your book doesn’t sell” on it. Obviously my book did sell, but I still read it when I am freaking out sometimes, because there are things in it that apply to absolutely every step I have gone through—from being a first drafting, clueless writer to querying for an agent to submission to now going through the perils that accompany a book coming out. I hope other writers—no matter where you are in the process of writing or publishing—will find something in it. Or at least know you are not alone in your crazy.
So your manuscript didn’t sell.
Knowing you, you are distraught over this and throwing yourself a big old pity party. Justified. You can be upset for like two minutes. Okay, maybe twenty minutes. But then you have to get up, turn off the sad music, and listen to me, rational Mackenzi, who you are currently incapable of accessing.
Does it suck that your book didn’t sell? Yes.
But here’s what that does not mean:
- It does not mean that this is a bad manuscript or that it was a waste of time and emotional energy to write it. Think about what you learned from working on it. SO MUCH. You will never be as bad as you were before you wrote this book. You are getting better with every book you write.
- And on the note of getting better, not selling does not mean you are a bad writer.
- This does not mean you will never, ever be published.
- You are not letting anybody down because this book didn’t sell. Not your agent. Not your professors. Not your critique partners or writing group.
- And not yourself either, because you wrote the best book you could write. You pulled no punches and took no prisoners. Not selling does not change this or cancel out the hard work or lessen in any way that this is the best work you can create at this point in your life.
- You aren’t accountable to anyone, unless you let this stop you.
- Sometimes books sell in two days. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes they never sell. Sometimes great writers have long and winding paths to seeing their words in print. The amount of time you are on submission or the number of manuscripts it takes is not a reflection of the quality of that work or your talent.
- Market trends and in-house factors suck, but are also totally valid and out of your control. Sometimes awesome books don’t sell for reasons that have nothing to do with their awesomeness.
- YOU DO NOT SUCK! As a writer or a person. It is so easy and comfortable to believe you do. Far easier than having confidence in yourself. Also remember that you have so much time to pursue this dream, or you will die young and this will be published posthumously and you will become a NYT Bestseller and you will be remembered as a tragic, misunderstood young genius. Win-win. This is not the last good idea you will ever have. This is not the only project you will ever care about. This is not the only thing you will ever be proud of creating.
Not selling does not equal failure. Not trying again or letting yourself fall apart over this does.
Chin up, sunshine. It will happen.
Love, Rational Mackenzi