How to Get Through Horrifying Process of Literary Agent Submissions

posted February 22, 2024

I have reached a critical point in the list of orderly steps in the long march to publication which I have been given by others and have dutifully written down. They are/were as follows:

1.     Write the shitty first draft
2.     Read it and make less shitty
3.     Send it to Kind & Wise Mentory Editor Who Has Read James Joyce
4.     Laugh and cry as you read her Kind & Wise suggestions; take 99% of them. Redraft.
5.     Send new draft to 28-Year-Old Editor Who Doesn’t Remember President Nixon But Is Much Smarter Than I
6.     Enjoy life with no novel to think about and write songs and poems while 28 y-o reads and edits draft.
7.     Receive edits from 28-y-o and cry for a month. Decide you are not a novelist. Pick yourself up off the carpet and have a Zoom call with her in which she tells you she had a very hard time editing your novel because it was practically perfect.
8.     Wonder if you are crazy.
9.     Take 69% of her suggestions and finish the draft.
10.  Write a synopsis which is harder than writing the novel
11.  Write the query letter which is harder than writing the synopsis
12.  Make a list of agents you’d love to work with by finding names in the acknowledgements pages of your favorite novels. Cross off the dead ones.
13.  Make a list of agents you have no idea about but they have Aussiedoodles and like pop culture.
14.  Start sending out the queries one agent at a time, based on their peculiar instructions (eg. Some want the first 10 pages, some 50 pages. Some want the synopsis, some do not, etc). All want you to tell them exactly why you picked them, and you can’t just say, “um, because I like Aussiedoodles too?”
15.  Rinse and repeat, keeping track of the rejections. Try not to take them personally.

Dog seeming to read a dictionary.
My current agent has poor phone skills.

At this point, some agent either will or will not make me an offer. I then either will or will not accept it. If not, continue to repeat step 15 until I hit my agreed-upon number (150, though Robert Jones, Jr who wrote The Prophets didn’t get a yes until agent #356.) When I come to the end of the list, if no one I like takes the book, I will begin the next steps which involve self-publishing. That’s a whole other list, one I gaze longingly at in my mind because it would save me from all of this misery and despair-o.

I’ll pause here to say that I’m only just barely at step 14, in that I have “started” by sending the book to four agents. One already responded (she had an Aussiedoodle) and said no because she’s looking for something very specific, eg a vampire story that takes place in 2300, and she doesn’t like pop culture. Moral: no correspondence between affinity for dog breeds and literary genres.

The work is painstaking and makes me feel like curling up in a ball and going to sleep forever, see below.

Me, in Despair-O. Perhaps a better metaphor is it makes my little red balloon deflate and fall to the earth as a sad, wrinkled red skin. 

Oh, the things I could do with my time instead of submitting! Detailing my expenses for my tax guy Kevin, finding a way to use AI to make cartoons (can I do that? How???), make a loaf of banana bread (see recipe below), make a pot of chicken soup (see other recipe below), make a music video for “Working on a Building,” or … just starting on List #2, and self-publish this book. Why am I putting myself through this torture?

Here is why. Because a few weeks ago, as I was going through some very sad feelings not having anything to do with artistic output or me at all but rather some family members who are struggling, I found myself praying: make me bigger.

I had no idea what I was even asking for. It wasn’t the kind of prayer I planned on praying. If I’d planned it, I probably would have asked for a literary agent. Or for thin thighs. But no, this is what came from the depths of my soul:

Make me bigger.

And as strange as the request was, I understood it. I sense that, whether or not I publish this book, what is coming next is likely going to be hard. My children are growing up so fast; one is about to leave for college. The other one’s about to get his driver’s license. I’m now the smallest member of the family (except Hudson). And all my beloveds, the people who raised me and taught me, are in their 70s and 80s. What am I going to do without them? Who is going to take care of me? Some agent with an Aussiedoodle? I don’t think so. But let’s say one of the dream agents from the list I made based on my favorite authors’ acknowledgements page responds, sells my book for six figures and I become a famous author? That will definitely be the hardest thing that has ever happened to me. I know this from the inside, because the height of my music career was absolutely the hardest time in my life.

As I wrote last year in this Brevity piece, I am clear on my mission. It’s to write the things I know to be true and useful and send them out into the world, be they songs, novels, essays, poems or whatever. And it’s none of my business what anyone thinks about them. 

So to this end, in order to comfort and calm my inner miserable child about this whole submitting business, I am hereby making this submitting business a game. 

Rules of the game:

  1. Wear a hat while doing the work of submitting to agents. We say we are (figuratively) “wearing a different hat” when we are advocating for the Artist within. So why not literally wear a different hat?
  2. Listen to this mix I made while you are submitting or whenever you have to do something difficult.
  3. Give yourself a gold star for every agent you send your query to. I heard once in grad school someone say that every time you send out your work, you’re making a potential fan. Even though you might get a “no” that doesn’t mean you are a pariah. That agent/publisher might now have you in the back of their mind for something else. 
  4. Practice gratitude and humility. 
  5. Pray to learn something useful in this humiliating process which you can then pass on to others.
  6. Be extremely nice to yourself. Do not denigrate your work
  7. Do not minimize how hard this is. Take a lot of baths, or do whatever you do that makes you feel pampered. I like to watch The Office (Peacock) and Derry Girls (Netflix).
  8. Do not maximize how hard this is. I mean, come on. It’s not EXACTLY like being in jr. high school again. 
  9. Find comrades of the pen to submit with and commiserate with and cheer up when the inevitable rejections occur, and cheer for them when the inevitable acceptances occur. THIS IS CRUCIAL!!!! We all need a literary community. Did someone say literary community? Thank GOD I have my Morning Seeding & Tending friends.
  10. Start writing something new. Maybe in the same genre, maybe in a different genre. 
Nerissa wearing a variety of hats, including wigs.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. You’re right – writing a novel – as a process – is endless test of your patience. Imagine you’re a painter. You don’t have to send your work out time and time again (“ add more vermillion amd blue”). Thanks for your post – the humor in it made it a nice gift.

  2. Just wanted to cheer you on and to say I love this…thank you for sharing! I’m not brave enough to go through this process myself, but I have such admiration for you and other writers who strive to share their voices by combining authenticity with a genuine openness to feedback and development. You go! You’re amazing!

  3. 1.) Oooh! Maybe even wear a tiara. Royalty gets to do and say things the rest of us don’t.
    2.) Thank you for sharing your comfort watch shows. I also recommend The Good Place (Netflix) and Ted Laso (Apple TV+)
    3.) I love your prayer: Make me bigger.
    4.) Wishing you the best of luck as you continue on with your mission.

  4. Brilliant hilarious dead-on post. I imagine Ann Lamott nodding with a grin and saying “testify!”
    The Agent-Quester’s Despair photo and Encouraging Hat Parade had Terri and I both laughing out loud.

  5. I’m a firm believer in wearing red shoes when times get tough, so I recommend adding red shoes to your hats. Also: yes to the tiara!

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