Thursday, December 2, 2010

What I've Learned From Being On Submission

First of all, I am so overwhelmed by the outpouring of encouragement and sympathy concerning yesterday's post! I wish I could figure out how to really express my gratitude, but all I can say is a humble thank you. I absolutely adore the online writing community, and this just made me love you all more. Cookies for everyone!

Since my submission story is finally out in the open, today I wanted to take the more positive, helpful route (hopefully, none of this is easy to address). I want to talk about what I've learned so far. Not that it was fun, but I have learned. I can't say I think all this happened for a reason. I don't think crap happens to us for a reason—I think it just happens and it's up to us to figure out how we'll let it change us, for better or worse.

Submission isn't something a lot of writers talk about, and I want to put some things out there. I want to help prepare writers who will face this stage, because I went in without really knowing what to expect. I'll start with having an agent/being on submission in general, then move on to the particular struggles I've faced and what came of those.

The Other Side of the Fence. AKA: More Waiting
When I was querying, it felt like the hardest, most impossible thing in the world. And it was. I'd queried over 200 agents. I'd tried 4 different projects (out of the 8 books I'd written). I knew I "wasn't there yet," but no one would give me the specific advice I needed to get there! Every minute of my day was spent thinking about my email inbox. Will there be a rejection in there? A request? WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN I AM DYING HERE?!?!

And then it happened, and it was nothing like I expected. I did 4 or 5 revisions before the offer of representation. Which was torture at the time, but in hindsight really helped me build a relationship with my agent. When he offered? I knew without a doubt we could work together—we'd already been working together for 9 months. Now I can't imagine how some writers pick an agent based on a few phone calls. Wow, hard.

I'd heard things about submission. I had friends who'd been on sub, and it was hard to watch them go through agony I couldn't really understand. I mean, I was kind of jealous they even had an agent. How in the world could it be worse than being at the bottom like I was?

Well, I've learned that submission is basically the worst time you have as a writer. It's true limbo. You are in between not-published and published. Submission isn't something you want to STAY in indefinitely. Pre-agent, at least you are firmly in the "not published" category. In submission, you could be published soon...or not. It's closer and yet further away than ever.

Don't get me wrong, having an agent is as wonderful as it is terrible. Does that make sense? I felt reassured that someone in publishing had faith in me, but also terrified that they'd be the only one. I was so excited to be at the next phase, but also scared of disappointing my friends, agent, and myself if I failed. Very conflicting feelings in this phase.

What I was least prepared for was the loss of control. It was easy to have faith in my agent, but at the same time it was strange not being able to do anything. I just have to...wait. In querying, when you get a rejection you can send another letter out. You can decide who to send to, when, and what. That all goes away, and while it's nice it's also weird. I was so used to working for myself, and now my writing fate is out of my hands.

And the waiting...oh, the waiting. Writers are pro waiters, aren't we? Hate to say that one never ends. It's something you just have to learn to accept. You think agents take a while to respond? Well, editors are even busier, so busy it's insane and I don't know how they do it.

But, as the responses to my post yesterday proved, this is all NORMAL. It's part of the game. You are not alone if you struggle during submission. For a while I did think I was the only one "sucking it up." Then I started to connect with a lot of other writers on sub, and their stories weren't all three-book-deal-in-a-week stories either! Heck, even those fast deals? I promise most have an epic, hard journey behind them. Years of writing, of failing.

It's NORMAL to have your first manuscript die. Normal to get rejected after revisions. Normal to feel terrible about it all. If this stuff happens to you—it doesn't make you a sucky writer. You're just plain old normal, and there are so many people who get it. I've taken a lot of comfort in that.

You know, it's the "dream" stories that get you started in writing. Oh, I've had my wild dreams and I don't regret them at all. I needed to believe. Now it's the "hard knocks" stories that inspire me to keep going. I need them to remind me that writing is plain hard for everyone. We're all in the same boat, no matter what stage. Writing is wonderful, but it never gets easy.

Would it even be worth it is it was easy?

The Complete Rewrite, A Study In Psychological Endurance.
I've revised a lot, cut out chapters and characters and whole plot lines. I was not afraid of revising. But restarting a book? Opening a blank document and writing it all over again? Scary.

But when I received feedback from my agent on this particular book, I knew it was either start over or put it on the shelf. There were too many BIG changes. And, well, my agent was right. As I read that letter, I bawled not because it was mean, but because he was right. I agreed with him on almost every point, which meant I'd spent about nine months of my life writing the wrong story for my characters. Not a good feeling.

I thought about that letter for a long time before starting. A month. I didn't take notes. I didn't open up the doc. I just let it all sink in. I let myself calm down and really think about what I wanted to do with this book.

In the end, I decided to go for the rewrite.

It was hard. And not in the way I expected. It wasn't the actual writing that was difficult. I already knew the characters, world, and story. I had outlined my plot. All I really had to do was write it all down, but my confidence was shot. I doubted every word I wrote. I mean, how could I know if it was right when I'd messed up so bad before? I thought the other draft was great! What do I know? I'm an idiot.

It's really, really hard to write when you don't believe in yourself. I had to trust in my crit partners, because I couldn't see for myself at that point. I love my crit partners, and this was just more proof of how important they are. I learned that just because I didn't think the book was good didn't make it true. Just because I didn't think I was a good writer didn't make it true. A lot of great writers feel like they suck sometimes—writers go in phases like that.

It's okay. Those phases end. The confidence can come back if you let it. Don't be so hard on yourself.

Editor Revision and Pass, Losing What Might Have Been
I talked a lot yesterday about how this hurt me, but not much about how I've healed over since. It's been about 5 months, and while sometimes it still sucks, I'm okay. I am happy, even. I take a lot of comfort in knowing there was an editor out there who understood and loved my book. I know it wasn't that editor's fault she couldn't buy it. I know that she is probably sad, too. She put work into my book, made it better, and for that I will always be grateful.

I learned a lot about the reality of publishing from this pass. I learned that, as much as people don't want to say it, the market plays a BIG role in what books get picked up and what books don't. When your book doesn't fit in a clean cut box, it can be really hard to get support for it in house. Publishers print good books, but they must print good books that will make them money. The easiest way to guarantee a return is to market a book to a specific audience.

It's kind of a weird contradiction. Because after all this I will still preach Write What You Are Passionate About, even though sometimes that means you won't get published. You have to write what you love. You have to stand by it. What's the point in publishing a book you aren't passionate about?

I learned that, despite rejection, I still want to be myself. I write weird books. That's okay. It might take a while for one of my weird books to stick, especially in such a tough market. That doesn't mean I'm a bad writer. There are so many great writers out there who can't sell books right now. Sad, but normal and true. It's not anyone's fault, really. It's just a tough business for everyone—writers, agents, and editors.

Losing Your Agent and Stuff
I'm still getting used to having a new agent. I miss my old agent. I love my new agent. I sometimes forget I have a new agent. Basically I'm all over the place. Happy and a little sad at the same time. Because, dude, my old agent was awesome.

But something cool has come of having to move on. I was starting to think that no one else would like my writing. After this year, yeah. How could I not? Hearing a different agent—one who didn't even really know me—say she loved my book, my writing? It was like being thrown a life preserver. Wait, you mean I'm not crazy? I am still a good writer?


That feels good. Really good. My new agent is awesome, too. She believes in me. It wasn't just a fluke that I got an agent in the first place. Maybe I do have some talent. Woot.


While I would never want to do it again and hope to avoid crap in the future, I will take the lessons I've learned and run with them. I try to see the good in things, even when it's hard. I try to laugh at myself. It's all in how you choose to see it.


  1. Natalie,

    thank you so much for posting these last two heart-wrenching blogs (I only just found your blog today). I'm in the first stages of seeking an agent and your journey, while sobering, actually gives me confidence...wacky. But I'm praying that 2011 will be the year of PLUCK. The perfect editor will recognize your book for the success it will become--and pluck it up and readers will pluck it from the shelves at an amazing rate.

  2. Natalie,

    Thank you for this post and yesterday's post! Your journey is so like mine... submissions for 15 months, then my agent recommended a total rewrite, condensing a trilogy I'd already written down into a single book. I've finished the first draft and have moved on to the editing stage, and I hope to go back out on submissions in January, but it's hard to have confidence when I know exactly what is wrong with my book and exactly how it doesn't fit into a neat little box.

    And then you hear about people who sign an agent one week and get a 6 figure book deal the next and it made me so jealous I couldn't see straight. But I'm getting over it and trying to be happy that another person's dreams have come true. If mine don't with this book, there will be the next book, as hard as that is to accept.

  3. Natalie,

    It's hard to add to what everyone else has said, so I'll just say a simple thank you. Oh, and a simple I'm proud of you, too.

    Those simple words look small on the screen, but know that they pack a lot of heart-felt meaning. :)

    I'm thankful for you and, like Charlene, am praying 2011 will be the year of PLUCK! (hehe)

    —Kayla Olson

  4. Thank you again for your honesty Natalie, for all of us who are taking this more difficult road, rather than the "Boom! an agent, Whammo, a huge deal!" road like we all probably hoped. I'm so glad you love your new agent and that she loves your stuff. I have nightmares sometimes that my agent will die and no one else will ever represent me. I hate those nightmares. Anyway, i'm so glad that worked out so well. :)

  5. So very impressed by you :) Really! Don't ever, ever be afraid of failing, only fear not trying *grin* It's what I live by!! Good luck and I KNOW we'll be reading a post soon were you're shrieking with delight because it's gonna be published. And I can't wait to read it :)

    BirthRight The Arrival on Amazon 1.1.11

  6. Another bull's eye!

    Thanks for saying what almost no one will admit to--I hate hearing that a good book will eventually find a home. Total load of crap. Best book ever written might not get published if the market isn't right.

  7. I just got an agent, so I'm at this stage...waiting and waiting and waiting. I just at the start though. Your post was very informative.

  8. WOW.
    You have been through some TOUGH STUFF! I'm not even sure what to say at the end of reading this post and the previous one...
    I really admire you for getting through it all and still being determined to make your dream come true. Well done! Amazing! And thank you for preparing me just the teensiest bit for all the horrible things that could happen to me!

  9. Thank you so much for your previous two posts. They've been a real insight into the world of submission and the possibilities that might happen to new writers.

    Keep pushing for your dream! It's really nice to hear about someone who doesn't get the dream deals.

    Sci-fi author John Scalzi got published because he started posting his novel on his daily blog through PDF files -- one file per chapter per day. Eventually, an editor saw it and called him up saying he wanted to buy the book. He did this with the sequel, and other subsequent books he's written. So if all else fails, you can always do something like that and hope that your HUNDREDS of followers can spread the word for you. And there are dangers of doing something like that, and maybe you can't because you are agented, but it's still something to think about (even if it is a think-and-then-reject idea).

    I'm rooting for you! So keep working and you'll find yourself out of that pit and on top of a mountain!

  10. Posts like this will always get the "great post" sorts of mentions, so I won't start with that. I'll start with acknowledging that it takes a lot of guts to not just acknowledge these things, but say them out loud.

    It's a bit like posting photographs from a surgical camera. A writer on sub is at the mercy of all those "experts" and "professionals", just like a patient is at the mercy of the surgeon working on them while they're asleep, and the pictures of the procedure in progress can be just as stark and shocking.

    I understand, in very small part, about the editor revisions that come before "no thank you." It was on a children's book, so we're talking maybe 3 and a half pages of type, but still it stung. It's horrible to get to peek into the publishing promised land and no go on through the gap. It feels like walking a tight rope with flowerpots on your feet, thinking "Maybe I can really do this," and hearing that first burst of applause, about the time the rope breaks and drops you in the net.

    And then, I think, we're programmed to overcomplicate what comes next. We want analysis and and we want to stay right there trying to keep the shiny idea from tarnishing, when really it's a simple choice between two options: you either quit, or you choose to keep going.

    I don't believe you're a quitter. Quitters whinge and moan and use their pain as weights to say they don't have the strength to go on. You did the opposite. You took the pain and frustration and turned it into a tool. You're not just helping yourself out of the Pit of Despair (*loves* Princess Bride... sorry), but you're taking a fair number of your blog readers along for the ride.

    One of these days, you can be the overnight success who gets to tell the dreamers about just how long that night stretched.

  11. Your bravery and honesty in these posts is inspirational. You will get the success you deserve one day, I'm sure of it.

  12. Thanks for this post, too, Natalie. Wishing you all the best!

  13. Another great, honest post!
    Thank you for sharing with us.

  14. In publishing, SLOW is the real normal. Those fast track stories are the exception, it's just that they're the ones we hear about. Who wants to shout out that it took them 2years to sell their book?

  15. I need to adopt your outlook on life :) I am unfortunately one of those pessimistic types, although I am trying my hardest to break myself of it, especially when it comes to my writing. Thank you again for another inspirational post.

  16. Wow, you have been through the wringer. I'm not even near where you are, but it's good to hear this now so (hopefully!) when I get there I won't be an utter wreck . . . just a bit of one. ;)

    But I love that you keep trucking on, not letting outside influences decide what you ultimately do. Go you!

  17. Ditto what Kayla said. (I'd say more, but it's a busy day at work, and really, Kayla said it all.)

  18. And thank you for this post, too! When you do get published (and I know you will) it will make reading the book all the sweeter knowing the hard work and tears and joy that went into making it possible. Thanks for sharing your journey with all of us.

  19. Thank you for sharing your story yesterday and today. I'm in the process of querying agents and I feel like it's some big secret and I never talk about it on my blog. One of my writing buddies asked 'how's the agent hunt going' and the flood gates poured open. I think I wrote a 15 page e-mail about what happened and all of my concerns. ;-) I want you to know that I really love your blog and that you have an incredible and engaging voice, so you can add me to the list of people who enjoy your writing :-) Good luck with all of your projects and I hope you'll keep writing those 'weird' books.

  20. Thank you again for this, Natalie. I'm so glad you've chosen to show us both sides of the process - the negative side, and what you've managed to take away from it. It just makes your struggle to become an author even more incredible.

    Being a writer means living with rejection. Obviously, that's not what most people want to hear. But it's true, and until you accept it, you won't get very far in publishing. You have accepted it, and I already know you'll go amazingly far.

    I'm so glad you've gained back your confidence, and even after losing your agent, you've still managed to land on your feet with a new agent who's just as enthusiastic for your writing. Encouragement is all you need, and maybe next time, an editor will be able to acquire your book. Everything happens for a reason - only time will tell what your reason is.

    Good luck, Natalie, keep us posted.

  21. Please send me a signed photo of yourself so I can hang it above my desk. You are my new hero.

  22. OMG, you're such a trooper. I don't know if I would have kept it together...that's so awesome your new agent is just as passionate about your work as your old one. That really would help me know that I really was a good writer. I'm excited to read your weird books!

  23. Thanks for posting these two days. I'm in a kind of down phase of the whole writing process and you're giving me the inspiration to pick myself up and keep on going.

  24. I've been thinking--what you call the "weird books" are often harder to sell in the first place. But when they do sell, they are often the ones that go big and set new trends just because they are so original.

    As you know, there are no guarantees in this business. But the good news is that great things often happen just as suddenly and inexplicably as the bad things.

    And the waiting? Yeah, it never stops. We're always waiting for something, at every phase of the process!

  25. Your peers admire you. You are not alone.

  26. "There are so many great writers out there who can't sell books right now." << That was my favorite part of this post.

    You inspired me yesterday to blog about my own publishing story, and I thank you for that. It feels like a purging to break the silence and shame cycle! :)

  27. Really glad you were honest about this because there's so much about this part of writing that just isn't said. And I imagine (because I'm not there yet) that it's a really lonely feeling when you're wondering by yourself if you'll ever make it. I'm really grateful to you, Natalie. Thank you.

  28. I'm another of those authors who Writes What You Are Passionate About--I can't do it any other way. And that makes my work a guaranteed non-blockbuster. (A refugee teen in the 1980s dealing with the aftermath of his father's torture during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile?) I ended up with a small press, and have come to appreciate the role of small presses in making non-mainstream perspectives available for people who read with their eyes and minds open and teachers who want their students to explore the world. Depending on what you write, a small press may be the solution for you, with the caveat, as I commented on your post yesterday, that people who start out with small presses tend to be locked into the small press world regardless of the critical reception of their work or even how well it sells.

  29. You know what Natalie? I write weird books too. No one knew what to do with I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME. We got like nine rejections before an editorial assistant loved it enough to push to have it published. I don't think anyone had very high expectations for my weird, little book.

    But, almost 3 years later, it is still selling and selling fairly well. Not NYT bestseller well, but it's still on the shelves - no small feat these days.

    I hate that there aren't more houses willing to take risks with books that are different.

    Anyway - keep writing. I need more sisters of the weird!!

  30. My agent tweeted this, is completely understanding. So AM's right: you are not alone.

    I've been on submission/revising for a bit, and what you've said about the market is EVERYTHING!

    You have truth, though, (and talent) (and tenacity) and that truth will lead you somewhere good, I know it.

  31. Babydoll, this is one of the best "writing" blog posts I've ever read. Privileged to know you.

  32. I really liked this post Natalie. Even better than the first one because it really shows how the struggle has made you stronger, wiser, more ready for your inevitable success. I saw a quote the other day from Ghandi that said:

    First they ignore you.
    Then they laugh at you.
    Then they fight you.
    Then you win.

    You are almost there :)

  33. You've been really brave to share all of this. We're under such pressure to be positive and tell aspiring writers "you can do it!" while we're crying behind our smiles.

    I've been through the submission process with three different agents and five different books. I've rewritten and rewritten, only to be shot down again and again. I finally went with a small publisher my agent didn't approve of (for good reason) and after they published two of my books, they went out of business, without ever paying me my royalties. And of course my agent had long departed.

    So I'm back at square one, sending out queries--on the third new book now. Somehow I keep going, because I can't imagine not writing. But I've had to start seeing it as a journey that may never lead to the promised land. No matter how polished my writing, or high-concept my premise, of impressive my blurbs, nobody wants to look at them because I'm "tainted" with the failure of my first publishing company. I've contemplated changing my name, but I've worked long and hard to establish my "brand."

    But still I write. I still need to be on the road, even if it doesn't lead anywhere. Like you, I've learned to concentrate on the good parts. And laugh.

  34. Wow. These 2 posts were exactly what I needed. My agent just put me on sub and I am scared to death with the whole not knowing what's going to happen.

    Just knowing that I'm not alone helps a ton.
    And BTW, I WAS eating cake when I read your previous post! :)

  35. Awesome posts. Just awesome. And this coming from someone who has been in a very similar situation. Consider me a new fan of your blog.



  36. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It's reality, both the business part of it and your response to it. I wonder how many others have been in your position and feeling like they were the only ones.

  37. Oh, Natalie - thank you so much for posting your thoughtful, honest story. I am with you and hope my misery gives you some company. Good for you for writing the weird - we can hang in there together!


  38. I've learned a lot with your 2 (lengthy LOL) posts! Nice to see what it's like on the other side of the agent fence. It'll be something to encourage me if it ever happens to me. I bet a lot of people can say the same thing--it making this public, you'll be inspiring and encouraging someone down the road.

  39. I have to say, Natalie, after reading your last two posts, I pretty much just want to read your book. Hear that, publishers? The public is clamoring... clamoring for this book.

  40. One of my wonderful critique partners e-mailed your previous post to me. I salute you for your honesty, your perseverance, and for helping so many other writers.

    I have just started querying agents and come to realize that rejection is the new black. As Savannah J. Foley said in her comment, it is hard to see straight, with others commenting on querytracker that "she requested the full within five minutes," or "I have nine agents clambering over themselves to represent me."

    I think your story is the more usual one, and I greatly admire you for telling it. And who knows? Now that you've got us all rooting for you and beaming our positive energy your way, the iceberg of crapola may just break in two and you'll be on your way.

    Best wishes,

  41. You are full of inspiration this week! Thank you, Natalie. I'm about to enter the submission trenches so this post will be my guide!

  42. Hi Natalie,

    Found these last two posts via Nathan Bransford, and WOW. I can't really say anything new compared with what has been said above, but you are an inspiration on so many levels. Your spirits have been crushed, but you never let go of that glimmer of light that makes us all keep writing (and trying, really) in the first place. I will remember these posts forever. No joke.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, and I hope all the potential goodness in this business comes raining down on you one of these days!

  43. Hi Natalie,
    The sad thing is there are so many of us aspiring writers doing all the right things but spinning our wheels. One factor I keep in mind is that Stephen King wrote five books before getting published with CARRIE. He's a testament to the phrase "perseverance pays."

    You sound like you are nearly there, so close to getting published that I can taste it for you. You must not lose faith.

    Have you considered self publishing? You've got the product (highly fine-tuned by now) and you have over 1000 followers; if everyone pitched in $5-$10 you'd have the funds to get started. In the spirit of writers supporting writers, I'm willing to put my money on you!

    Anyone else?

  44. I feel like I'm having a taste of what you're feeling, because my manuscript passed through the partial stage and now two agents have their hands on the full. And it's been two months. And I know I have to be patient. And I know that the chances of me getting picked up are still really low. But I still check my email every hour on the hour. And I've managed to keep myself busy writing a new book but I'm 2/3rds through and my mind starts saying THIS SUCKS. I SUCK. REJECT ME ALREADY SO I CAN STOP WAITING BECAUSE I KNOW I'M A BIG FAT FAILURE AND I'M SO SICK OF STARING AT THE UGLINESS THAT IS MICROSOFT WORD.

    Anyway, I keep reminding myself that if I don't do the best I can with the opportunities I have now, I'll always regret it. A speaker at the last CONduit in Salt Lake said, "if you can imagine your life without writing, you probably should give up, because the road is longer and harder than you can ever expect. But if you can't, then you're going to keep writing anyway, and you might as well try to get published."

    If the big houses all reject you, the small ones here in Utah might pick it up. Lots of local authors have gone on to be big successes.

    (BTW, I totally thought of doing a Ninja book. It was going to be middle grade and called "Help, My Mother is a Ninja", but it fell apart in the outlining process. Still might come back to it someday.)

  45. Cookies? Hell, drinks all around! I totally see why all the greats banded together in Paris back in the day. Writing is tough! Today, I even started getting my teaching stuff together. I know! What am I thinking? Having faith in the process is difficult, but I'm inspired. Thanks. I

  46. It is easy to see why writers go insane. Thanks for this lovely, in depth post for all of us out there with similar feelings.

  47. Thank you, Natalie, for your honesty. I'm in the dark void that is the submissions process at the moment and it is sort of scary. The waiting really sucks, but it's nice to hear a supporting voice out there.