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.