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Is Your Writing Out on Submission? Welcome to Hell

So you (or your agent) has sent your work out to ... someone. A magazine, a competition, a publisher, a broadcaster, a film company, an agent you hope for, an author whose quote you desperately want for the cover, even a mentor or editor you've hired yourself. You are now officially in the condition known as Waiting To Hear.

Welcome to a minor and largely unacknowledged room in Writer's Hell. Or rather, two rooms. You may have a short, relatively easy time in Limbo, when you genuinely know you won't hear: the stretch before the competition deadline or the closure of the submissions window; the months before the date they've said the competition result will be announced; the three Frankfurt-sodden weeks when your agent will definitely not be reading it, or she knows that editors won't be.

And then there's the true Purgatory that starts at one minute past 9am (your time-zone may vary) on the day you can start hoping (however unrealistically) to hear. Particularly excruciating side-chapels of Purgatory include the one for those competitions which have a longlist and a shortlist, and the one where the editor says she loves it, and wants to take it to acquisitions in six weeks' time.

A writer I know refuses to talk about "submissions" and "rejections", because we should consider ourselves equals in this transaction: we offer work, and the publisher/agent/broadcasters accept or decline it, he says. He's quite right, but there's no denying that it's hard not to feel abject when you're in Purgatory. You may have good cause to hope that they'll want you, but unarguably they don't need you, whereas you do need them.

What's more, after all these months or years as onlie begetter and sole ruler of your work, you have unavoidably stapled your heart, and perhaps (unwisely) your mortgage, to those pages ... but there's nothing, now, you can do to alter the outcome. And if you write poetry or for magazines, or you are a serial writer of novels, or have made the (usually wise) decision to submit your book widely, you can live in the Limbo-Purgatory circle for a very long time, or even permanently.


Start something new. I cannot emphasise this enough. If you allow the conviction to grow that your entire writing future rests on this story or book or commission, you will go mad. Besides, it doesn't: you can write something else. Really you can, and you must. Having your work rejected declined is horrible, but it's a whole lot horribler if you let that rejection declension (declining?) spell the end of the dream you've been working so hard to make real: that you can be a writer. Plus, if you do find yourself talking to an editor or agent, they will certainly want to know what you've got in the pipeline. 

Don't pin all your hopes on one submission. Send it out elsewhere. Generally speaking, ignore those who say they don't take simultaneous submissions, which give editors and agents more control over your work than they deserve when they haven't paid for it - but be prepared for the consequences and consider what you'll do in the various possible combinations of acceptance and rejection. 

Send out some other stuff, somewhere else. It might seem to make it worse, but actually it dilutes the agony: when the first rejection comes in, you'll still have a different something out in different places. By the time those have come flumping back into your inbox, you'll have another batch out somewhere. It keeps the hope going. 

Do practical things which will be useful if your work is published - but only realistic ones, that you won't regret if it isn't. Buy your domain name and bag Twitter and other accounts to match; set up a blog if you have a topic, ideally relevant to the book, which you enjoy and can sustain (but not under your own name if it's chronicling rejections); hunt down a good writers' circle or forum, if you haven't got one already. It's a very good idea to start going to readings, events and festivals in your form and genre, and to start following people and making connections on social media ditto. But forgive yourself, and pause these, if they start making you feel more inadequate and hope-less.

Cut yourself some slack. Accept that your shitty first draft will be shittier than usual, and make notes as you go about what you're not stopping to put right at the moment. Switch to research if you're really distracted and stuck. Switch to intensive reading of relevant creative writing if you're even stucker. If you really can't do stuff for your own writing - or you realise it's only the must-write demon insisting that you should - then concentrate on nourishing and re-fuelling reading. Oh, and this is not the moment to go on a strict diet or give up smoking, or do anything else hair-shirt-ish. 

Recognise when self-consciousness is sabotaging you. All too often, a piece of your writing-brain scampers off to read the editor's/agent's/judge's mind, and badgers the rest of your brain to write what would please those judges. Don't let it - partly because it can't read those minds, and partly because self-consciousness is death to creativity. 

Don't be sucked into fiddling instead of real writing or real revising and editing. This is why.

Recognise when the doubt-demons are sabotaging you. That self-consciousness evolves horribly easily into an Inner Critic. A simple-minded, primitive Critic may clearly tell you that your writing is rubbish and you're a fool who's too big for their boots, and everyone at the publishers' or competition's office is laughing at you. The first may be true, but your Inner Critic is by definition a liar, so don't believe him/her; the rest are not true. The more evolved Inner Critic learns to don disguises, however, so keep an eye out for those devilish eyes glinting through the mask.

Nourish and refuel your creative self: Enjoy the fact that you are no longer grabbing every minute to hammer away at a manuscript. Now is the time to sort out the garage or the attic if you're the kind of person who once they've knuckled down will get real satisfaction from a good job well done. The rest of us bake cakes, take photographs, write poems (and poets try writing stories), go for long walks in nice places, and catch up with friends we trust not to ask (too often) about how the submissions are going. Just don't get fed up with yourself if nothing is quite as satisfying: Waiting To Hear is rather like having a bit-of-a-headache for three months.

Nourish and refuel your body and brain: get out of the house in daylight, every day, at least walking; eat well but also sensibly even if you don't feel like it; read/listen/watch easy comforting stuff by all means, but the satisfying, refuelling kind, not the junk-food of the Dark Playground.

Recognise your procrastination for what it is, but explore why you're procrastinating. It might be the agony of Waiting To Hear, but it might not be - and the causes do make a difference to what you can do to overcome or side-step it.

Remember we all go through it. This article is comforting, but on the whole writers don't admit we've got work out there because a) usually we'd rather not set ourselves up for having to talk later about books that were rejected, although there are exceptions: my book about failing in writing a novel will be published in 2019. b) Facebook syndrome: we are all selective about what parts of our lives we make public c) we get fed up with being asked, since there's actually nothing to say when kind people say "any news?"; non-writers in particular may innocently say things which are at best tactless

Find companions in misery. This is when your closed, private circle of trusted fellow-writers, your secret Facebook group or your old muckers from the Masters or the Self-Editing Your Novel Course come into their own. They understand both the agony and the context, and they've been there themselves, or will be soon. The first thing I do, when I've sent something off, is to collapse into the private forum where all my dearest and oldest writing friends hang out, pour myself a very large virtual drink, and catch up with who else is suffering. They are also the friends who will say very lovingly, when I'm being hysterically furious or crushed about something else, that it's my Waiting-to-Hear condition which is making everything seem impossible.

Recognise when you really are not OK, shift into self-care mode, exploit anything you know of yoga, meditation (as Kate Armstrong has just reminded me) and mindfulness, and if that doesn't work, get professional help.


Try not to spend your life trying to read the entrails of how long it takes to hear, or what the first few say when they do respond, or what you read elsewhere about the state of the market, or what another writer says about their success or failure. Obviously, if a website gives a deadline or a likely response time (and these days many do), it's perfectly fair, a little while after that time, to email and ask if they have an answer yet. There's nothing to stop you doing that even if the website says nothing, but you may not get an answer. Other than that, really, truly, the only thing you can tell from not having heard yet is that you haven't heard yet - and the only answer to "how long will it take?" is however long it takes.

Know that being slow to get answers is incredibly common - and ever more so. Editors at magazines have to do more and more work with less and less help; at the literary end they have to spend swathes of time on grant applications, and almost certainly have a day job too; a book, to be acquired, has to promise with increasing certainty to sell in much larger numbers, and that certainty has to be based on all sorts of figures and judgements. And now that a decision to acquire has to go through many hands and committees, and there's always someone off sick or away, the response to you will arrive at the speed of the slowest in-box. 

Lean on your agent but remember they are not your best friend or your counsellor. Your agent's job is to be your interface with the industry, and that includes explaining how things work, when you might hear, and what the next stage is. Don't feel ashamed of asking apparently silly or ignorant questions: there are fundamental ways in which we are not part of the industry, and all new writers, and many established ones, simply can't have learnt all this stuff. Having said that, your agent has a job to do, and it's not to answer daily furious or miserable or just fussing emails from you because you need to let off steam.

Allow yourself to be miserable when you do receive a rejection someone declines to buy your work. It not only hurts to have someone say "I didn't like it enough", but you've had your hope taken away, however temporarily, and that is a bereavement. The only way round grief is through it, though chocolate helps. Alcohol helps too, but may make tomorrow worse, because it's a depressant. And be prepared for a temporary flare-up of self-consciousness, Inner-Criticism, self-sabotage and procrastination. 

Try not to feel that you'll be letting others down if the work doesn't sell, whether it's your agent or your writing tutor or your family. It's human, but that way madness (or at least an unhealthy emotional dependence on your tutor or agent) lies. Agents are gamblers, and they don't always win. That's not your fault, any more than it's your fault if someone looks at your racehorse, reads up the form, and chooses to put money on it. Tutors are the same: we are thrilled when our students succeed, we are very sad when they don't, and as part of our reflective practice we worry about we could have done better - but at heart we know that it's just how it goes. And family? Make sure they know something about the realities of how it actually works, manage their expectations along with your own, and don't be afraid to ask for what you need, whether it's that they stop asking, or they join you in a cathartic day of garden-butchery. To which end:

Understand more about the context of acceptance and rejection.  I know that sometimes you'd rather not know - but this classic post by a publisher is very funny, but also very informative. The good news is that, provided your manuscript is better than this - "Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless" - then it's already better than 75% of the slushpile.

Find out more about the acquisitions process. Many an aspiring writer, having slogged and studied and bagged a good agent, is startled and depressed to discover that it's only the beginning. But the acquisitions process is also worth thinking about when you're looking for an agent, since they earn their living by understanding how editors think ... This post, over at Nicola Morgan's always-excellent Help! I Need a Publisher, sets it all out very clearly, and this one is good on how magazine editors operate.

Get practical about your idea that if this works, you might be able to write for a living. What is this Hell telling you about how much you care, or don't, about the business (and it is a business) of finding readers? If having work out there makes you realise that you want to do a Masters, or start a magazine for others' writing, or build a writing hut, or turn to self-publishing, then go for it. But, I can't emphasise enough: don't commit to anything, financial or otherwise, which you will regret having committed to if this work is rejected declined. And don't let your legitimate hopes blind you to the less-good possible outcomes, because there are all sorts of factors governing your work's fate which are nothing to do with its qualities, and everything to do with things you can't know about.

Finally, don't be ashamed to recognise that this is not what you want to do with your life. I know more than one person who worked and slogged and got a novel out there and ... in the process of submissions, realised that, actually, the time-and-emotion-suck wasn't worth it, and didn't serve their happiness, and they stopped. I know other writers who walked away from the whole shebang after a published novel, or two, or even more. That's a perfectly honourable decision, which you shouldn't allow pride, or other people having nailed their colours to your mast, to stop you making. 

But, if you do decide to start, or carry on, submitting:

Bon Courage!