Author Mike Chen On The True Hell of Being On Submission

If there's one thing that many aspiring writers have few clues about, it's the submission process. There are good reasons for that; authors aren't exactly encouraged to talk in detail about our own submission experiences, and - just like agent hunting - everyone's story is different. I managed to cobble together a few non-specific questions that some debut authors have agreed to answer (bless them). And so I bring you the submission interview series - Submission Hell - It's True. Yes, it's the SHIT.


Today's guest for the SHIT is Mike Chen, author of Here And Now And Then, releasing January 29th from Mira Books.

How much did you know about the submission process before you were out on subs yourself?

Absolutely nothing. I wound up Googling a lot. I found a few articles about it, but those tended to only provide a macro view of the process. It felt devoid of timeline specifics or process specifics, and that’s really how my mind operates. The best repository of info really was the SHIT archives. I actually bookmarked my favorite ones, and when I was feeling desperate, I would re-read them. So SHIT was kind of like my 12-step meeting when I was getting to anxious and needed to check SOMETHING. That’s why I wrote you a thank-you note in 2016 for them!

Did anything about the process surprise you?

How mysterious the whole thing is! It just seemed weird that there was no real step-by-step breakdown of what happens. You get so much of that with agents and queries, and then with submissions it becomes a black box. Also, I died at acquisitions four times, and I just didn’t think those odds were that bad. One of my agent siblings died five times before getting acquired, so I guess I wasn’t the worst of the bunch.

Also, I was surprised at how much the business side had sway. I had a lot of interest and support from the creative (editorial) side but it was always the business people who said that I was too literary for an SFF imprint or too SFF for a literary imprint. Much later, there was an episode of Printrun Podcast where Laura Zats talked about her speculative clients facing the same issue. I actually texted Eric (since he knows Laura) that I was relieved to hear it wasn’t just us.

Did you research the editors you knew had your ms? Do you recommend doing that?

I did do that, though my agent (Eric Smith) advised me against it. He’s right, by the way, and I would recommend staying away from that as much as possible, particularly Twitter. Because most editors don’t really tweet much about their submissions, but they may follow you purely for research purposes. HOWEVER, because we are writers and super neurotic and everything is awful, any sort of accidental Like could become an Omen From The Heavens when it really means nothing.

It’s really better just to trust your agent that they have a good sense of what’s going on, who to sub, and what people want. It is also nearly impossible to keep this distance.

What was the average amount of time it took to hear back from editors?

I double-checked and my death-at-acquisitions were all spaced about four months apart. I’d say we’d get rejections in 6-8 week cycles. For second-read interest, that would usually be at the two-month mark. “You’re going to acquisitions” was usually at the three-month mark and then the final say was around four months.

What do you think is the best way for an author out on submission to deal with the anxiety?

It is so cliche, but write another project. My total time on sub was nearly two years, and in that time, I completed another manuscript. For MS #2, we actually created a sub plan and my agent did some preliminary tire-kicking towards the end of MS #1’s cycle. When MS #1 sold in a two-book deal, I really believed that MS #2 was the perfect companion book in tone and style to MS #1, so I felt really strongly that it would be accepted.

My editor (Michelle Meade) didn’t want to look at it until we were done with copyedits, but she approved it in proposal format shortly after that. The big difference with me and my writer pals who wrote book 2 on proposal was that I was way ahead of the game. This created significantly less stress and allowed me to start a few different WIPs, one of which my agent and I ultimately decided for MS #3 on general sub.

Also, get a good group of writer pals that have been through the sub ringer. They’ll be the only ones who can understand the bizarre stress of sub.

If you had any rejections, how did you deal with that emotionally? How did this kind of rejection compare to query rejections?

It sucked. It felt soul-crushing, particularly at acquisition. My first acquisition death, I had talked with the editor on the phone and we’d made rough editorial plans and it felt SO GOOD. Then she said she’d get back to us in about a week, and a week became a month and then it was an apology.

The second and third passes were especially crushing. I thought I had the numbers on my side. Then when the fourth one came, I was ready to call it quits. I was kind of numb to it at that point, and when my agent told me that they ultimately passed, I remember doing a bit of a maniacal laugh at my computer. My friend Kristen Lippert-Martin joked that in a way, the fact that the publishing gods chose to pick on me so harshly was kind of a compliment.

If you got feedback on a rejection, how did you process it? How do you compare processing an editor’s feedback as compared to a beta reader’s?

I actually did three R&Rs of varying length. The first one was a massive 10-page edit letter, which I thought was super cool. I took it really seriously, and it was my first experience with that detail of feedback. The other ones weren’t as strenuous but they did add to it.

Funny enough, when we did sell to Mira Books, the team there had requested an R&R to add in world-building and address some pacing issues. When I saw the notes, I realized that it was basically a compilation of the previous R&Rs. I created a consolidated version, then added one new scene, and that was the version that sold. The editing process for the final really focused on streamlining that new version down to the core essentials, but Michelle was really happy that a lot of the heavy lifting was done for her.

When you got your YES! how did that feel? How did you find out – email, telephone, smoke signal?

Utter disbelief. I was so convinced that it was going to fail again that when my editor specified a date and time for a response (because my agent was on paternity leave at the time), I was totally skeptical. Then he texted me with “It’s time” while I was chatting with writer pal Diana Urban. My response is documented in photos here.

I work in a big office and literally no one knows about my writing life, so I had to dash outside to take the call a minute later. As I did after I got an agent, I did a lot of sitting or standing alone and pumping my fist to myself over the next few days.

Did you have to wait a period of time before sharing your big news, because of details being ironed out? Was that difficult?

We waited about 6 weeks until the deal memo was hashed out. I had a few short conversations with Michelle leading up to that but she didn’t deep dive until months later. By then, most of my writer pals knew, but when it went up on Publishers Marketplace, there was the awkward part about telling people in real life. Outside of my wife, no one knew, and I have this weird hang-up about integrating real life and writer life. So it made for a very awkward Facebook post to friends and family.

But I won’t complain. I’ve seen friends sit on it for 6+ months because of contracts, and I’m just thankful that the Mira team was cool with just having a deal memo.