Columns > Published on January 28th, 2019

How to Submit Writing Like A Relentless Force of Nature

Legendary sci-fi author Connie Willis told me a story about her early submitting days.

Willis’ method was simple: Always have something out for submission. That way, when place A rejected your work, no biggie, you still had something out at Place B, Place C, and in her case, Places D-Z. You waited to hear back, and in the meantime you took the rejected work, repackaged it, and sent it somewhere else.

This meant Willis made a lot of post office trips and bought a lot of stamps.

So one day she gets everything back in the mail, and I mean everything. Every story she had out for submission came back the same day, all rejected.

How do you feed yourself to the machine over and over again, get beaten down and keep returning for more?

To say it was deflating would be putting it pretty lightly. “Gutted” is probably closer. To see that volume of quality work come back, none of it finding a home, it was tough. She considered quitting the writing game. Who wouldn’t? If a boxer was knocked out 10 times in a row, they’d probably consider retirement. If they were knocked out 10 times simultaneously (I don’t know how that works exactly, just go with it) I’m pretty sure they’d quit as soon as they were conscious and able.

What convinced Willis to keep going? It was simple. She had a bunch more stamps. If you’ve got the stamps, might as well use ‘em.

She sent out her work again, used up her stamps, and this time she got some stuff picked up.

Submitting your work can be a slog. No, it’s not that it CAN be a slog. It’s that it absolutely IS a slog. Send it out, get rejected. Send it out somewhere else, it’s not a good fit. Send it out, get some good feedback, but no placement.

That’s the cycle I’m in right now, and I’m psyching myself up to keep going. Keep submitting. Keep trying to find a home for my work.

How do you keep submitting? How do you feed yourself to the machine over and over again, get beaten down and keep returning for more? I’ve got a few methods.

Keep Looking for New Spots

Don’t send something out and sit around, waiting to hear back. You should constantly be looking for places to send your work.

Entropy Mag has a great list of spots, but there’s another method I like.

Basically, look up some stuff that has a similar flavor to your book, find out who published it, and look into that. Sometimes you’ll find only the big publishers. Read a little more, find the niches where books like yours live. Hit up their web pages. Damn near every press has submission guidelines and windows.

Just as a note, some places don’t allow simultaneous submissions (a simultaneous submission being a piece you send to more than one potential publisher at once), but most do. Just make sure you keep track of all the places you’ve sent a given piece. That way, if someone accepts it, you can notify the other outlets who missed their chance.

Get Organized

Spreadsheets. I hate ‘em. But they have their uses.

Here’s a system I use. Modify it so it fits you.

Sheet 1: Places to submit

Include requirements, dates, type (contest, rolling submissions, etc.), and for your own use, a priority between 1 and 3 of how pumped you’d be to see your work come out of that house.

Sheet 2: Places you’ve completed the submission process

Same as the first sheet, but add a column regarding whether or not they will get back to you and in what window of time. If you’re shopping multiple pieces around, add which piece has been sent where.

Sheet 3: Future submission spots

These are spots that don’t currently have open windows, but they will, and they look promising. Keep these organized by date.

Sheet 4: Rejections

No need for gory details here, just make sure you’re not hitting up the same venue twice. Also, if a rejection comes through with a desire to see work from you in the future, transfer to your Future Submissions Spots sheet. Make a note that you’ve already sent them something, and make a note of the person who you emailed with (this is potentially useful information to include in a letter later on).

It’s a huge pain in the ass, but getting organized saves you tons of time in the long run. And a career in writing is definitely a long run.

Keep Your Cool

When it comes to rejections, be the person you aspire to be.

You can’t control whether or not you get rejected. But you can control your reaction.

When you get a rejection letter, pop back an email with a “Thanks for your time, and thanks for letting me know.” Do it right away, then file that rejection email in a folder you use to track such things. Get it out of your inbox, don’t dwell on it.

The benefits of a kind response can be immediate. I was once referred to another publisher I hadn’t heard of as a result of striking up a quick, friendly conversation this way. If you thank the person, you might be able to ask for some constructive critique, if there’s any to be had.

Besides the concrete benefits, remember that there’s a real person on the other side of that rejection, even though it doesn’t feel like it sometimes. Nobody wants to go to work and turn down a bunch of hopeful writers. Nobody was rubbing their hands together on Sunday night, pumped for Monday morning when they got to fire off rejection emails. Hell, for all you know, the person turning you down may have really enjoyed and advocated for your work.

When it comes to rejections, be the person you aspire to be: The person who can accept rejection and move on.

Always Be Closing

This is a tough one for some of us, especially first-timers. If you grew up humble, if humility is a trait you admire and aspire to, you need to drop that in the submission process. Because nobody is going to knock on your door and ask for your manuscript. Nobody knows who you are.

You just have to get used to selling yourself. Talking about how great you and your work are. It’s like a job interview. You gotta go in with the attitude that whoever publishes you is lucky to have you. It’s a tough mindset switch, and it’s going to feel uncomfortable. This might be a good time to talk to your biggest fans, friends or family. People who will unabashedly compliment you and tell you what you’re doing right. Write your introductory letters as if you're those people.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to raging egomaniacs. You lot are just fine on this front.

Where Skill Meets Luck

Did the person reading your manuscript have a fight with their spouse? Did they get 8 hours of sleep? Did they just read something in a similar vein that just happens to be slightly better than yours?

There’s an element of luck to submissions, especially slush pile submissions. And by “element” I mean in the way there’s an “element” of bacon in a BLT—a HUGE element.

When you get rejected a couple dozen times, you start looking for patterns, conspiracies. But the truth of submissions is that your acceptance percentage is going to be low, especially at first. It’s not that you’re unlucky when your stuff gets rejected. It’s that you're extremely lucky when it’s accepted.

You can’t control luck. You can’t fight it. All you can do is write the best possible manuscript and create as many opportunities as possible for luck to strike.

Don’t Get Sloppy

Keep yourself to a high standard. Keep reading those guidelines. Keep familiarizing yourself with the other work from a publisher before you submit. Keep doing a good job.

Three quality submissions will serve you much better than a dozen haphazard ones. Sloppy submissions are a waste of your time and of a publisher’s as well. It feels like you’re accomplishing something, but the terse, quick rejections you get by sending your stuff to the wrong places will only serve to frustrate you further.

Recognize Your Own Milestones

Like I said, you can’t control the acceptance of your work. But there are lots of things you CAN control, and those are things you should celebrate.

Did you put in your 10th submission? Get a pizza. Get your first real rejection? Have a drink. A CELEBRATORY drink. Before you even get started submitting, decide what you’re going to do to celebrate along the way. Keep things fun, keep things positive, and keep celebrating the things you have control over. Submitting is work that nobody else will reward you for, so take care of yourself.

That's my stuff. But like I said, I'm in the thick of it. Who's got advice for me?

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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