Tips and Tricks for Navigating the 6 Emotional Stages of the Submission Process

Tips and Tricks for Navigating the 6 Emotional Stages of the Submission Process

If you’ve ever sent a manuscript off for feedback or submitted a piece for publication, you might be familiar with the six stages of external radio silence. 

  • Elation that you’ve actually finished something and sent it out.
  • Doubt that you made the right choice. 
  • Pleading that someone get back to you with an answer—any answer—as long as it doesn’t break your heart. 
  • Fear that the delay means your manuscript is the pits. You actually pray that it’s rejected. 
  • Either jubilation that your work was accepted, or despair that it didn’t work out, and maybe it never will. 
  • Acceptance of the outcome. If the feedback was helpful or your piece was published, you celebrate. If not, you dust your manuscript off, make any necessary changes, and send it out again, because real writers write. They also send off their work.   

Life in submission purgatory is messy. We can forget that while rejections might signal a need for more revision, they’re not condemnations of us or our work. Sometimes, the problem is simply a matter of fit. 

For example, my essay “Half-Life” was rejected twenty-five times over the course of two years before it was picked up by Kenyon Review Online. I knew it was a good piece, so every five rejections, I sent it off for a critique, revised it, then sent it back out.  

I’m not the only writer who’s survived external radio silence

I met Margaret Lee at the 2019 Writer’s Hotel Conference while we attended a workshop with New York Times bestselling author Meghan Daum. During the summer of 2020, Margaret finished the agent-ready draft of her memoir Starry Field, and then began the querying process. In early 2021, she finally snagged an agent. 

Here’s what Margaret had to say: 

“As Tom Petty once sang, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’ That was so true for me. It was excruciating, especially since I had to wait so long for responses.”

Like Margaret, many of you talked about the bad neighborhoods that form in your heads when the silence gets uncomfortable.

There are a number of things you can do to address this discomfort. 

Gather your wagons: Before you submit your work for feedback or publication, identify and touch base with the cheerleaders who love you no matter what. Your list should include fellow writers, friends, family members, and even pets. 

Katherine Herndon, Executive Director of James River Writers, is a huge proponent of finding and leaning on your writing friends.

“You need to be around people who understand the little wins (“I got a nice rejection”) and the frustrations (“an agent who has my full manuscript just announced on Twitter that she’s quitting agenting.”)—this is particularly important for the frustrations that would make you look bad if you actually posted them on Twitter.”

Remember your intention (or form one): A good story can enlighten, comfort, and help heal our deepest wounds. When the silence turns your mind into a bad neighborhood, write about how your project serves other people. Use that vision to bolster your faith. While you continue to wait, make a small contribution to the group who would benefit most from your story. You could make a donation to a nonprofit, volunteer for an organization, or write an essay that highlights the needs of this community. 

Start something new: Instead of waiting desperately to hear from “the one,” working on a new project reminds you that you’ve got other options. 

Enjoy life: Poet Frank Bidart said we should all spend time making art and then live life. If you’re not quite ready to start a new project, enjoy the life you have. Bake a pie, paint a picture, walk barefoot on the grass. Stroll by the river and find the perfect stone. Once you’re vaccinated, eat dinner with friends, go on a vacation, and find every opportunity to appreciate the world you might not have seen during the past twelve months. 

Remember, it’s not always about you. Margaret has one last bit of advice for those of us mired in the silence. “Keep sending out your work. Finding an agent depends on a lot of things that don’t include the quality of your writing: timing, workload, life events (pregnancy, new baby, sick family member), etc. Don’t be afraid to query more.”

Her advice reminds me of something my mentor Sharon Harrigan once said. “After one hundred rejections, things begin to pick up.” You might be thinking, one hundred rejections! Really? But she was absolutely right. Things picked up after I reached one hundred rejections. To earn those rejections, I had to keep sending my work out. 

If you’re navigating the silence, know you’re not alone.

I’m with you on this journey. 

Let’s be each other’s cheerleaders because our stories are our gifts. 

Enjoy the life you have and keep writing on. 

The Two Forms of Radio Silence that Can Impact Your Writing Life

The Two Forms of Radio Silence that Can Impact Your Writing Life

On Wednesday, February 24, 2021, I sent my manuscript to the first batch of interested agents. Adrenaline spiked through my nervous system as I clicked the send button and watched my queries disappear.

The rest of the day was filled with all the highs and lows that come with showing up for my writing life.  

Reaching this milestone feels incredible, but as all seasoned writers know, this is but one of many steps on the way to publication.

Like many of them, it contains a healthy dose of radio silence while we wait for updates on our manuscript. 

In the writing life, there are two main forms of radio silence. One often leads to the other, which can put a damper on our writing projects. 

External radio silence is easy to spot. It occurs when we’re waiting for feedback on our manuscripts whether it’s from a writing group, beta readers, agents, or publishers.

Many writers jokingly call this purgatory, because while we hope for acceptance and praise and brace for the rejections and revision requests so common in our field, we exist in the great unknown. 

All of that external radio silence can lead to internal radio silence where our creativity stops speaking to us. When our creativity goes silent, we avoid our writing desks or show up to the page empty-headed and unable to produce a thing.

When this happens, we fear we’ll never write again. Some of us turn that fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy and give up the dream of being a “real writer.” 

Here’s a little secret. Internal and external radio silence are normal parts of the writing life. Those of us who’ve been at it for a while know that as uncomfortable as it is, you can survive it. And, if you persevere, you will become a better writer for having endured it. 

The key is to identify it, love ourselves and our writing anyway, and keep showing up. 

Surviving the silence is the topic for this month’s newsletter series.  

Next week, I’ll talk about how to survive your times of purgatory.

In the meantime, I wish you so much success. 

If a story calls to you, that’s because the world needs it. 

So what are you waiting for? 

Novelty, Absurdity, and Magic: Three Elements of Play that Will Enhance Your Writing Life

Novelty, Absurdity, and Magic: Three Elements of Play that Will Enhance Your Writing Life

Last week, I laughed hysterically while watching the video of Rod Ponton, the lawyer who showed up to his Zoom court hearing with the kitten filter turned on. 

I replayed the video three more times, just to hear him say, “I’m live, and I’m not a cat.”  

If you haven’t seen the video, click here. You won’t be disappointed. 

That laughter was a welcome reprieve after a month of memoir revisions right before the anniversary of my brother’s death. 

Developing the capacity to sit with difficult emotions is an important skill we all need to cultivate. But to truly live—and write—with an open heart, we need to balance the dark times with a little fun. When it comes to levity, play is an ally. Play is also essential for your writing projects.  

While getting my bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Louisville, my mentor Paul Griner said there are only seven story plots. Novelist John Gardner reduced them to two—hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. Either way you look at it, there are no original stories. But there are original ways to tell them. 

Play can enhance your creativity and originality. It helps you increase your sense of focus, engage with the unexpected, and develop novel connections in your brain. Those novel connections will allow you to see problems in new ways, and as a result, churn out fresh new stories. 

To play and have fun with your writing life, you need to incorporate novelty, absurdity, and magic into three fundamental aspects of your creativity.

Why novelty, absurdity, and magic?

The brain lights up when it encounters something novel. That neural firestorm can create the new story connections you’ve been looking for. 

Absurdity is about embracing the ridiculous. When we do ridiculous, meaningless things, we look at the world in new ways. This can lead to story innovations. 

Magic, and in particular enchantment, is all about delight. When we’re delighted, we experience joy. That joy energizes us and motivates us to create more. Not sure if this is true? Ask yourself how many pages you wrote during your last major funk. Compare that to your output when you were feeling lighter.  

Here are a few ways you can add novelty, absurdity, and magic into your creative life. 

Play with movement 

If you want to be a successful writer, you must develop a blue-collar work ethic around your writing sessions. While this means committing to a butt-in-the-chair practice, sitting for long stretches causes blood to pool in your extremities. This takes nutrients away from your idea maker. You need to balance your butt-in-chair time with a little movement. 

Research has found that walking is a great way to generate fresh ideas. Many of us have developed walking practices during COVID. But to move playfully, you have to do something new. 

Novelty: Take a new route.

Absurdity: Be THAT neighbor: skip, twirl, or walk backward along your route. 

Magic: Stop and listen to the emotions hidden in birdsong. Search for a talisman in the rocks you pass. Photograph something strange or out of place. 

Play with Form

Most of us develop our stories in the same way. We write lots and lots of words on a page. When we’re done, we cross out the ones we don’t like, rearrange the ones we love, then try to perfect our sentences. But that’s not the only way to tell a story. In fact, telling a story off the page either before you draft or between the drafts might lead to insights that make your story stronger. 

Novelty: Instead of writing your story, PowerPoint it, collage it, or storyboard it. If you’ve already written your story, take some time to draw your scene shapes

Absurdity: Instead of writing your story down, record yourself as you perform the draft. Do it in your worst British accent. Make up ridiculous voices for your characters. The more you get into it, the more you’ll open up to the process.  

Magic:  Create the board game version of your project (Think The Game of Life, Monopoly, or Chutes and Ladders). What does the board game look like? What are the rules of this world? 

Play with Ideas

How many times have you flipped through the idea files in your brain, hoping one of them contains a fresh story idea? Instead, you write what you’ve always written. Often, those scenes have the same emotional flavor. Guess what? Sometimes, the best ideas aren’t inside you. To create something fresh and new, look outside of yourself. 

Novelty: Gather four jars and some 2-inch by 2 -inch squares of paper where you can jot down single words. Make a list of situations, feelings, problems, and objects. When it comes to feelings, be sure to include the ones you typically write about and the ones you avoid. If you’d like to expand your repertoire of feelings, click on this list. Write one item on each square of paper.  Drop your situations into one jar. In the second jar, add your feelings. Add your objects to the third jar. In a fourth jar, include your problems. Choose one item from each jar. Now, get writing. 

Absurdity:  Make a list of inappropriate or absurd situations your characters could find themselves in or create a list of objects that would make you think twice about someone. If you’re looking for some inspiration, watch some episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld. Here’s a link to the episode where Jerry steals a loaf of marble rye bread from an old woman.  

Magic: Create an astrological chart for your character and use it to gain insights into their problems.  Or play the board game you created in the previous exercise. Use it to guide your storytelling process. 

 Try a few of these exercises then send me an email. I’d love to hear what worked for you.

Stay warm, find some lightness in your days, and as always write on. 

The Importance of Writing with an Open Heart

The Importance of Writing with an Open Heart

Yesterday, I sat at my desk and cried. 

It was the twenty-four-year anniversary of my brother Joe’s suicide. He was twenty when he died. I was twenty-two. His death is now older than both of us—a fact that continually blows me away. 

I’ve dealt with this grief for over half of my life, but this year stung a little more. 

On January 29, 2021, I finished the agent-ready draft of my memoir, How Not to Die: From Death to Life on a Heavy Metal Tour.

After reading the final words, I danced around my office while listening to Europe’s The Final Countdown.

If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s a cheesy ‘80s anthem my brothers and I used to rock out to when we were kids. 

After the song ended, I cried tears of joy. 

I’d done it! 

After three years of hard work, I’d finished my book.

Those who’ve met me know that I’m a fiery person who likes to get shit done (like sending off recently finished manuscripts). 

I’d even set a deadline for myself. On January 29th, come hell or high water, I would send my manuscript to interested agents. I was certain that any other choice would be a letdown. 

Over the years, I’ve learned that many of my hurry-up-and-get-it-done messages come from ego. So, I meditated to figure out whether the twenty-ninth was indeed the right day to send out my manuscript. 

Even though I was excited to move forward, my True Self said wait, at least for a little while. 

Reluctantly, I listened. 

It didn’t take long before grief blanketed my enthusiasm.

I wasn’t surprised. My brother has been gone for a long time. The years since our last touch sometimes make him feel more like a dream. When I started writing this manuscript some of that changed.

Over the past three years, we’ve laughed and cried about all that happened to us. With each revision, he’s become a little more three-dimensional.

Now that it’s time to say goodbye to this manuscript, I feel a profound sense of loss that’s led to some snot bubble cries and more than one good sniff of his leather backpack. My heart aches with an arthritic pain that’s steady yet manageable.

But it’s also okay. 

You see, I signed up for this gig. 

If step one to being a good writer is to listen to your True Self, step two is to live with an open heart. 

To do that, we have to make room for our feelings so they can flow through us. As they do, we need to take care of ourselves. That means crossing things off our to-do lists and resting more than we’d like. Sometimes, it also means waiting before sending off a manuscript for feedback or publication. 

This advice is as true for fiction writers as it is for memoirists.

In both genres, you have to write to the bone of your material, which can take you to some achy places. 

In a world that tells you to go, go, go, waiting might not feel like the sexy option. But giving yourself time to honor the weight and power of your story is a sign of self-respect that can ensure you’re not sending out work from an overly vulnerable place.

Having lived through many anniversaries, I know my grief cycle. Every year, as this anniversary approaches, grief rushes in like the tide. On February 9th, it sweeps back out to sea and the world looks a little brighter. 

I know the urge to cry will subside. 

The aches will disappear. 

When they do, I’m confident my True Self will greenlight my querying process. 

When that happens, I’ll share that journey with you.  
In the meantime, take care of your precious hearts and keep writing on.

Building Intuition: How to Tell Which Messages Are Generated by the Ego and Which Ones Come From Your True Self

Building Intuition: How to Tell Which Messages Are Generated by the Ego and Which Ones Come From Your True Self

When I was eight, I read about a boy who used a divining rod to find water. At the time, my six-year-old brothers and I were trying to build an underground house in the remains of an abandoned brickyard. We’d spent lots of time digging out our foundation and building the fires that would keep us warm. But when I read about the divining rod, I realized we had a major problem. There was no way for us to find or transfer water to our off-the-grid, pipe-free home. 

We tried to address the first part of our problem by building a divining rod, but no matter how many times we shook our Y-shaped sticks through the air, they never worked. 

Sometimes writing well requires a little divining. 

We structure our plots hoping to engage our readers, but until we tap into our feelings, we can’t truly flesh them out. 

Our emotions play an important part in our writing lives. They help us understand and connect with our characters’ feelings, build better scenes, and develop more compelling narrative arcs. 

During the revision process, we can use our intuition (which is an amalgamation of our emotions, senses, and experiences) to let hunches and gut feelings lead us to the places in our manuscript that are working and the ones that need our attention.  

But not all emotions are helpful.

Sometimes, we get overwhelmed by our stories or doubts from our internal critic creep in. We fear our stories aren’t good enough or that we are not good enough. These fears amplify our doubts, which can lead us to trash perfectly good manuscripts. 

As writers, our job is to tease out which emotions come from the ego, and which ones come from the true self. 

Ego is the part of our personality that’s invested in our self-image and the way we’re perceived by the external world. It loves labels and frequently makes comparisons between us and others.  Ego creates thoughts like “I am good at writing,” “I’m terrible at math,” “Nobody likes me,” and “I’m better than you.” It’s mostly concerned with appearances and approval. Ego hates to be caught off guard and armors up against vulnerability—often by telling us that our best and most vulnerable writing is actually terrible

On the other hand, your true self is the part of you that’s always wise and always whole. No matter how much we doubt ourselves or how broken we feel, we all have a true self. Your true self is concerned with truth, understanding, and helping you grow.

Your true self encourages you to follow your dreams and gives you the courage to keep going even when the destination is unclear or seems impossibly far away. Your true self is the part of you that knows when something is working.  It also nudges you to keep learning and try harder without affecting your self-worth.

But how do you differentiate between emotions rising from the ego and emotions rising from the true self? 

Here are a few clues. 

If you’re experiencing doubt or fear, it’s probably your ego talking. To confirm this, write down your fearful, doubting self-talk. Then ask yourself the following question: Are these thoughts related to appearances or approval? 

If they are, say hello to your ego.

If ego is causing problems in your writing life, it’s likely that something about the process is making you feel vulnerable. Your job is to explore what that might be. Here are some questions to help you get started.

  1. Is something outside your writing life making you feel more vulnerable? This could be anything from work or family stress to lack of sleep, physical illness, or even seasonal affective disorder. 
  2. Is something about the writing making you feel too vulnerable? Many people are afraid to start something because they might fail. Others are afraid to finish because they’d have to see themselves as powerful and successful. Sometimes, we reach a vulnerable or even traumatic portion of our story and the wounded part of us doesn’t want to continue. This is common in memoir, but it can happen to fiction writers too if the emotions your characters are feeling are ones you also struggle with. When this happens, ask yourself what you need to feel safe. Do you need to check in with a writing buddy, take a break, practice more self-care, or work with a therapist?
  3. Have I gone too long without feedback from a trusted reader? Here’s the truth. Nonwriters don’t understand the writing life, and most don’t care about it. That’s why a writing community is so essential. Writers can normalize the ups and downs you’re facing. When you lose perspective on your writing projects, they can remind you of your strengths and help you make sense of pieces that have gotten muddled.

But not every doubt comes from the ego
Sometimes, your true self is asking you to dig a little deeper. 

You’ll know your true self is talking when you have a nagging feeling that something in the writing isn’t quite right, but—and here’s the important part—you also feel calm. You aren’t worried about how someone else is perceiving you, you’re worried about creating great art that expresses some universal truth. 

For many of us, connecting with our true selves requires a bit of practice and some guidance. That’s one reason I’m currently teaching Building Creative Intuition.

If you’re looking for a few practices to get you started, consider the following options: 

  1. Find time in your day to be alone with your thoughts. This can be done through a journaling practice like Julia Cameron’s morning pages, a walk by yourself (preferably in a quiet, natural setting), or just sitting for fifteen minutes with your eyes closed. 
  2. Develop a mindful meditation practice. Structured mindful meditation practices can help you develop a sense of calm while you quiet your busy mind. The busy static is often your ego chatting away. When your mind quiets down, you’ll hear your true self speaking to you. 
  3. Notice your gut feelings and begin to trust them. Some of us grew up in environments where we were told that our reality wasn’t real, so we stopped trusting that very wise part of ourselves. When this happens, trusting your gut takes practice. The first step to trusting your gut is to notice that you’re having a gut feeling. When one arises, pay attention to what it says and then give yourself permission to act on the information. Consider this an experiment where the results are just data that inform your future choices. The worst that will happen is that you’ll realize you’ve made a mistake and then you can course correct. Think about how many times you’ve done that when you didn’t trust your gut. 

Over time, you’ll find that your emotions can serve as a very effective divining rod that will lead to your very best stories. 
Have a strategy for tapping into your intuition? 

Or do you struggle with differentiating between ego and your true self? 

Send me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 
 And, as always, keep writing on.

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