The question arose recently on a forum for Women Writers where I like to lurk – the Binders Full of Women Writers group on Facebook, if you must know. * The question was a legitimate one for a group of aspiring and accomplished writers in all sorts of genres and formats and forms: what do you do when you’ve just submitted something and are in an agony of suspense? How do you handle that turnaround time, whether it be three hours or six months? How can one thwart the mad impulse to call the editor after a few hours have elapsed and ask them eagerly, desperately, what they think of your work, and how soon they plan to run it, and how much notoriety and/or wealth you may expect this work to bring you?
*cf. recent Guardian article: “Can a secret Facebook group be inclusive?” for latest Binders controversy.
The answers varied widely between the surprising and the mundane.** Some said garden. Some said bite their nails. No one, on the thread I saw, admitted to caving to the dreaded impulse, calling, and then later finding the site/publisher/journal’s submission guidelines acquire text stating blatantly that calls from nervous writers inquiring about their submission do not speed up the submission process and tend to make the editor feel less inclined toward accepting their work. But I’m sure many have done it.
**In the spirit of preserving the veil of secrecy, I will make up answers that resemble actual answers, but in no way are meant to represent any known persons, living or dead.
I myself have fought this impulse many times. I have not gotten any better at handling the post-submission suspension, but I like to think I have gotten wiser. Back when I was first sending out short stories and then story collections and then pitches for novels, one was far more likely to send things in the mail, and be resigned to the days, weeks, and months that must elapse before the contest results were published, the rejection/acceptance letter arrived, or the nice note from the agent said “not what we’re seeking at this time.” Then one had little choice but to let the anxiety dwindle and disappear in the wake of other concerns, such as preparing meals, cleaning a house that had gone to seed while the work was in progress, attending to whatever other duties paid the bills, and potentially attending to neglected spouses, partners, family members, and friends.
But in these days of perpetual contact x instant access x instant gratification, when one can conceivably expect to hear back within minutes, the quivering on the edge of one’s seat can become agonizing. Ken Atchity in How to Publish Your Novel dispenses the age-old relationship advice: the best way to forget an old romance is to start a new one. Or, put more clearly, the best way to handle the nail-biting suspense is to start a new project and put one’s energies there.
Interestingly, I am in the middle of that suspension, yet again, with a manuscript that is very important to me. I recently attended and enjoyed a talk by a reputable and high-quality local publisher who stated explicitly that he didn’t enjoy it when would-be authors hounded him about their queries. So when I pitched him a short story collection – as I was dying to do – I vowed I would not call or e-mail, not even with the sorry “I just wanted to make sure you got this” excuse. But what he’ll never know – unless he’s reading this – is that for a week, I checked my e-mail about every 5 minutes. I send the manuscript Monday, and I faithfully committed to this deranged and distracting behavior for a full five days, until the realization crashed upon me: he did not instantly fly to open the e-mail he saw was from me, he did not instantly read my query and the synopsis and the sample story, and he did not lose sleep that night about how fast he could secure my brilliant book.
Mine was just one in a mountain of queries, one in a mountain of other brilliant books. I am not a supernova, or some rara avis; I am just one of many, many people who have written a book and hope someone would like to publish it. This was a bitter pill.
In the event, my distractions were not self-generated but rather came in the form of other acceptances. A different story collection, A Lesson in Manners, got taken by a different press, with the promise of prize money to sweeten the deal. This buoyed me considerably. Another acceptance came in for a nonfiction essay I had written. By the time the first editor responded to me with a request for the full manuscript, I had enough pending publications to mean I had less time for the maniacal behavior that had afflicted me before. This is not to say I was not beset by nerves; I spent an entire weekend probing, pruning, and pacing over the MS I chose to send him. But I responded promptly, forced a very cool manner, even made a joke about only calling him five or six times a week as opposed to eight, and clicked “Send.”
And then I exhaled. What happens next is not up to me, and therefore worrying over the outcome is highly unproductive. A spiritual lesson that has been taught me over and over again, by rejection not just in my writing life but in romance, academic aspirations, and other venues as well, is: Do the Work, Ask the Question, and then Let Go of the Outcome. Or, as I think of it privately, get to the door, and knock. Then wait, patiently, for the porter of the Universe to open the door, and let me though.***
***Clearly, I am following a principle of surrender here. But I do think of the parable from Kafka’s The Trial, where the man who waited all his life before a closed door learns only at the end of his life that it was meant for him all this time and all he had to do, presumably, was go through, despite the Doorkeeper. I have no idea how this analogy applies. Does it mean, call the editor?
So, in other words, my best advice for handling the suspense of waiting is to have other pending publications and revision efforts to shore up your time. Barring that, I suspect Atchity has it right: begin the next project while you wait. Continue to practice, continue the work. By the time the answer comes, hopefully one will have enough other pots boiling on the burner that the rejection will not cripple. It will sting, yes, as rejection always does, but the other boiling pots will made the sting fade all the more quickly.