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.

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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.

Emily Layne On The Waiting Game of 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 Emily Layne, author of These Wicked Waters, coming in the fall of 2019 from Owl Hollow Press.

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

Not much. I thought book deals happened overnight. Or at least within a month. Because those are the deals you hear about. The ones that went to auction and the author had a contract in a matter of days. Boy, did I learn…

Did anything about the process surprise you?

How long it takes! I went into the submission process with some pretty false expectations. I assumed my book would sell and sell fast. But months went by. And months. And months. Being on submission is almost exactly like querying except you’re usually guaranteed to get a full request and you’re not alone in rejection disappointment—your agent is right there with you.

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

I did a little bit. I would check out their Twitter occasionally, hoping for a teaser about what they were reading or about what kinds of books they were interested in. But as time went on, I stopped checking.

If you’re the kind of writer who can obsess over checking editors’ social media, I don’t recommend researching them. But if you have a gentle curiosity and just want to see what they’re about… go for it!

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

It varies so much! But average… I’d probably say at the 3-6 month mark. I had one editor who responded after only a few days with a rejection. Others took a year. Some we didn’t hear back from at all, despite my agent’s gentle nudges.

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

I don’t think there’s a way to totally forget that you’re on submission and the anxiety that goes with it. A lot of people say “start a new project!” Which is absolutely good advice. You want to have something to sell next!

But sometimes the last thing you want to do is write. And that’s okay for a little while! One thing that really helped me handle the anxiety was time. The more time passed, the less excited and nervous I became. Once the three month mark hit, I was ready to start a new story. My advice is to understand the process, realize it will take a while (usually) to hear back, and take a well-deserved break before starting a new project—you got an agent and have editors reading your book! You’ve earned a writerly vacation!

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

Rejections are never fun. The first few I got on These Wicked Waters were a big disappointment, but I quickly accepted the fact an editor didn’t think it was a right fit and moved on. After all, I had other subs out.

When I got to the end of my subs… That’s when I got nervous. Because unlike querying, there is a smaller pool of publishers. If they weren’t interested, then I had nowhere else to go (except self-publishing. And while that’s a great opportunity for writers, I wanted to be traditionally published).

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 never got much detailed feedback on any of my rejections. Like agents, editors get a bunch of subs and look for reasons to say no. Many rejections were generic. A popular line I read over and over was, “I just didn’t fall in love with it.”

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

I never expected to get a “yes.” I’d been on submission for two years (yep, TWO YEARS. You read that right.). My agent and I had officially shelved my book back in March 2018, but she met an author at a conference who raved about her publisher. So my agent asked if I’d like her to send These Wicked Waters their way. I O.K.’ed it, feeling very pessimistic. I was done with TWW. We’d even started going out on submission with another book of mine!

Then in June 2018 I got a call from my agent. I didn’t recognize the number so (like the introvert I am) didn’t answer it. She left a message. I started listening to it, got a few seconds in and heard “Hi, this is Becky. Owl Hollow is interested…” And then I squealed, closed my voicemail, and ran in circles around my room. Eventually I calmed down long enough to listen to the rest of the voicemail and call my agent back.

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

Between when the publisher expressed interest in publishing These Wicked Waters and I accepted, I had to wait about a month and a half before sharing the news. We had to go through contract negotiations which took about four to five weeks. The wait time would’ve been much harder if I hadn’t been getting married three days after Owl Hollow offered publication. The whirlwind of a husband, new apartment, new state, and new job kept me from being too antsy. But I still couldn’t wait to share the news! I had a newsletter written, ready to send as soon as I got the OK. I’m pretty sure it sat around for about a week before it went out!

S. Gonzales On The Emotional Roller Coaster 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 S. Gonzales, author of Only Mostly Devastated and The Law of Inertia. Gonzales writes Young Adult contemporary books with twisty plots and a generous dose of romance, featuring witty but vulnerable characters.

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

I’m one of those people who researches *everything* before I make any moves, so I would say I knew a fair bit. If a blog post covering the submission process exists I have read it, bookmarked it, and memorized it. Actually, one of my favorite things to do as I went on submission was read and re-read the S.H.I.T series!

Did anything about the process surprise you?

I was mostly surprised by how vague things could feel at times. Most sub stories I read followed the formula of “agent gets email that editor liked the book, agent gets email that book is going to acquisitions on x date, author waits anxiously on x date for news." But for me, even in three sub rounds, I never heard once that I was going to acquisitions. Sometimes there would be vague hints from editors that we’d have more news shortly, several times the first time we heard of acquisitions / second reads / editorial meetings occurring at all was in the rejection email.

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

My agent refuses to let me know which specific editors have my manuscript (Boo! Hiss!), probably because she’s worried I’ll end up perched in a tee outside one of their houses. Which I feel is unfair, because I’ve only ever been caught doing that once, but I digress. The few times I did figure out the identity of an editor who had my submission (writers on sub can be mighty resourceful), I have to admit that it wasn’t that helpful for me. Maybe my agent knows more about my tendency towards anxiety and obsessing than I give her credit for. . .

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

According to my trusty spreadsheet, most responses came in around the 4-7 week mark. The quickest response came back after a day, and the longest response took 29 weeks. Once, I went to acquisitions after 21 weeks of not hearing from the editor. It’s honestly so varied.

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

Find something else to obsess over. Set yourself a goal that doesn’t involve the book on submission, and work towards it! One useful goal might involve a WIP, which is advice I’m sure most writers have heard (because it’s great advice). For me, it helped to set an exercise goal, because it let me burn up a lot of nervous energy and helped me feel in control at a time where I had very little control. And it cancelled out multiple rejection pints of ice cream.

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

I have been on sub three times now—once with a book that didn’t sell, once with a book that sold after 8 months (The Law of Inertia, Amberjack Publishing), and once with a book that sold in a pre-empt super quickly (Only Mostly Devastated, Wednesday Books). So I’ve seen most of what sub has to offer! Honestly, I found sub rejections initially harder to deal with, because when querying I got over rejection by sending out a new query, and you don’t have that option on sub. But in saying that, after a while I stopped being so hyper-aware that I was on sub, and it got easier as time went on. Was I zen and accepting, or just numb to pain by then? I . . . am not sure.

Also, I think the hard truth is that once you have an agent, a part of you believes that you’ll sell. You hear the stories about agented authors who don’t sell, but for you, the main character in the story that is Your Life, that won’t be the case. You’ll be the exception. Then, when I wasn’t the exception, it was a real case of having to shift expectations and let go of a book that I loved, while also trying not to lose confidence in myself. Believing you’ll succeed but accepting that you might not is a tricky tightrope to cross.

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?

One of the great things about sub rejections is most editors took time out of their day to give some constructive feedback on why they passed, which I was so grateful for! The important thing was to differentiate between the more subjective feedback and story issues. Feedback related to pacing, technique, stakes etc. I take pretty seriously. On the other hand, lots of editors would pass because they didn’t love a certain character, and the next day another editor would pass saying they adored that character but didn’t like one of the other characters. And in those cases, it was more of a “not for me” than constructive feedback.

I wouldn’t say I treated editor feedback differently to a beta reader. For both sources, I’d apply the rules: “Did more than one person say this?” “Do you see where they’re coming from?” and “Is this something you’re willing to change?” There aren’t many hills I’ll die on when it comes to content if I’m getting feedback that something isn’t working. I’ve made some huge, hard changes, but in hindsight it was always for the better.

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

For The Law of Inertia, there wasn’t a ‘yes’ moment, it was more of a series of moments that grew closer to a ‘yes’ until the ‘yes’ was established. But that’s so often the case in publishing - lots of small wins that snowball into something huge that you can only see in hindsight. I mostly just celebrated every few days through the whole process, floating around in an ecstatic bubble.

Only Mostly Devastated was more of a surprise! We were only newly on sub, so I was settling in for the long haul—I wasn’t even going to think about responses until we got closer to the four week mark when they’d usually start rolling in.

It was Valentine’s Day, and the night before, I’d read The Dangerous Art of Blending In in one sitting, so I was on the bus to work and messaging Angelo Surmelis, the author, telling him how much I loved his book. Then halfway through the conversation I got a call from Moe, my agent. She has never called without messaging me first, but I didn’t even have time to get my hopes up, because she opened the call with the fact that we had a pre-empt offer. Then I screamed on the bus for ages while the other passengers gave me alarmed looks out of the corners of their eyes. Once the call was finished I had to keep responding to Angelo—with shaking fingers—casually and with maximum chill, because I couldn’t say to him hey, hold that thought, I just got an offer on my latest book.

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

For The Law of Inertia it was a 2.5 month wait before sharing. I told a couple of close friends and went out for some celebratory dinners, but I was hanging out for that moment when I could finally announce on social media. It didn’t disappoint, either!

And for Only Mostly Devastated, luckily I didn’t have to wait long before sharing at all—it was only about two weeks between the offer and the Publisher’s Weekly announcement. That was nice, because I was still riding my own personal wave of excitement when I got to share it with the world.

Having experienced both, I would have to say it was more difficult to have to wait, because you don’t really know when to celebrate. Do you celebrate when you go to acquisitions? When you have a verbal offer? When you get the formal offer? When you accept the offer? When you sign the contract? When you announce on social media? All of them? (I’m a keen supporter of ‘all of them’, because celebrating is lots of fun!). But I’ve learned that this is the nature of publishing. There is no moment when you’re done. It’s just an ongoing rollercoaster of highs and lows that, let’s be honest, lots of us wouldn’t get off for anything.