Passing through Submissions Anxiety, FIN: The crap you cannot control

So, say you’ve done everything you can in crafting your novel at the level you’re working at. You’re aware of your strengths, weaknesses, why you write, and what it is you’re offering the world. You’ve edited and you’re moving on. Well, then it’s time to suck it up and send it out.

But wait! First, the non-writing skill of understanding the business of publishing. I’ve been reading agent and editor blogs for awhile now, and they’ve made a huge difference. Mainly in my head.

There are expectations. What a query looks like; what a professional communication looks like. I understand that yes, you do have to pitch and sell your book in a handful of paragraphs, and it’s because everyone at the receiving end is buried neck deep in other manuscripts, queries, and elevator pitches. I understand that persistance means more than anything, but not persistance to a particular agent or editor – they don’t want to hear back from you after they’ve passed on a project, and don’t want to give notes about it.

I also understand that it really isn’t personal. Here is photographic evidence – the slush stacked up at Tor , about half way down, would take a braver woman than I to wade through. You’d have to become really good at evaluating in a paragraph or two; a query letter, a paragraph, NEXT.

And even if you do all your craft work and the elements are brought together skillfully and beautifully, you still have to query the right agent or publishing house on the right day with a project that excites them and fills an existing lack in their stable of *unpublished* books. Which is sort of hard to guess at, what with the unpublished part. You have to write something timely without being obviously derivative – or if you’re doing something derivative, it’s got to have some reason to grab the established market.

A recent lovely rejection from a partial said this: “Thank you for the look at INSIGNIFICANT HOLY.  I was impressed by your prose style but the story is hard to categorize and I worry would be a tricky sell.”

This is a great example of what cannot be controlled. It’s also not the end of hope – a tricky sell for this agent might very well be a good thing for someone else, depending on their contacts with editors and what they’re comfortable repping. I may have mistaken what this agent wants, or she may not have room for something she doesn’t recognize.

There may be agents and publishing houses and imprints who are in a place to try something not as easily catagorizable, those for whom taking risks have garnered rewards. 

Anyway, learning what was beyond my control helped make rejection less painful, but it’s also hard to seperate what is a rejection due to ‘something you should do differently’ and what is rejection due to ‘not here and now’.

Compounding this problem, the sad truth every agent or publisher knows, is that those who rejected Hemingway or Joyce in the early days most certainly thought there were things they ‘should do differently’. Whereas the real issues with Hemingway and Joyce were ‘not here and now’. If you’re an agent or publisher rejecting something that was written with care, it’s hard to give critique that means anything. This is why so many agents have something in their form letter rejection that says something like “opinions vary widely: keep looking”.

If I were an agent, would I offer to rep an unknown Hemingway? Only if I had no other challenging authors that needed much stewarding, I had money coming in, and I fell in love with the style enough to go to bat with an industry that didn’t accept that style yet.

So. Don’t take it personally. If you get notes, listen but don’t jump to rewrite. If lots of people say similar things, then rewrite. WHO are you writing for is a damn good question. I have a few people whose input I consider – you can’t write for everyone.

In the end, only you know what is ‘something you should do differently’ vs. ‘not here and now’; hearing your own understanding or confidence in that might take 10 books and many failures, a good writing group, and a few honest critiques.

The first book, I think, is the hardest. You want all these things you can’t control to line up and speak to the things you did control. To tell you whether you nailed your part or not.

But the only cure for that desire is to keep writing.

I think I’m coming to the point where I’m judging myself first. I would say, for me, the desperation for non-rejection was a sign that I hadn’t settled in yet. I didn’t understand my own work, yet.

Settling in is good. It makes the writing more fun. Rejection still sucks, and especially the rejections from those who *are* interested, but it’s not quite the same level of suckage as ‘finger-on-the-delete-key’.


  1. There is a dumbfounding amount of stuff you can’t control in this line of work. For me, that’s what makes it more like a Job, and less like “OMG I’m following my DREAM I am the luckiest person EVAR why doesn’t everyone do this?!?” It’s like the slave whose job it was to whisper in Caesar’s ear during his triumphs: “Remember, you are mortal!”

    And I don’t know that it’s all bad to be reminded, occasionally, that our feet are on the ground. I think it can help keep us working hard at this.

  2. Yeah – I think of the more prolific popular writers whose publishing houses, I think, sometimes do them a disservice by publishing not-quite-there stuff.

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