What Happens on Submission Stays on Submission

When I was querying literary agents for the first (and second, and third) time, I kept a moderately active Blogspot. Nothing too formal, but enough to connect me to a community I’m still lucky enough to know today. I had their posts as a guidebook. Whenever I wasn’t sure if I’d been waiting too long, or if I said the wrong thing, I read their experiences, held them up to mine to make sure I was on the right track. Whenever there was a question I wasn’t sure if I could ask, the answer existed somewhere already.

When I signed with my then-agent at the end of 2012, I posted about how excited I was to go on submission to editors. And then, following the conventional wisdom I’d read about, I kept my mouth shut. It has, for the most part, stayed shut since.

The rationale behind the Submission Cone of Silence is as follows: it keeps you from saying anything you’ll regret, and it preserves the illusion that you’re a fresh talent rolling into an editor’s inbox just minutes after signing with your agent. And all those What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Sell a Book guides told me the same thing. That it’s hard, of course it’s hard, but you can tell everyone all about that after you sell.

And then I kept not-selling.

This is the point where I’d look for someone else’s story to reassure me that I was normal. This is also the point where it became clear that everyone else got the same advice I did. The blog posts were self-selecting. Submission was the longest month of my life, I must have read about a dozen times. And then I’d look at my submission list, time-stamped about a year prior, and wonder if one day archaeologists were going to find me half-crumbled into dust and still clutching my laptop.

(“Extraordinary,” they’d whisper. “She was refreshing her inbox all those years.”)

I asked my friends, published and almost-published, when they sold. On the second round. On my second book. On the second round of my second book. By the time my third book went out on submission, I’d stopped asking.

I did a lot of backspacing, both in writing and in tweeting. Everything I tried to say sounded ungrateful, or impatient, or dismissive of the luck and privilege that got me this far. When my agent parted ways with me, I did a lot of acknowledging it without acknowledging it. It was easy enough to figure out if you read between the lines, but if I didn’t say as much in public, maybe no one would figure out what an Undesirable I was.

And after a while, I just wanted to own it. I’m competitive. If I was going to be an Undesirable, I wanted to be the Least Desirable Person in Publishing.

I didn’t own it. I cultivated an even better poker face. I got really good at keeping my excitement in the forefront at events and book launches, and saving the bucketsful of conflicting feelings until I walked home. I gently brushed off questions about when my book was coming out, and I said a lot of No, that’s okay. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they’d asked anything wrong. It would hurt more if they stopped asking.

This is, I know, a lot of talking about not-talking. I started this post thinking I’d talk about the times spent scribbling on the margins of my day job, the manuscripts shelved, the foothold into the writing world that I worried I’d lost until the Writers’ Room and its wonderful community helped me reshape it. These are still things I want to talk about. But then I started to wonder what about these stories was so damaging that I felt the need to sit on them for over four years.

After all, writers tend to lose perspective, stuck in their own heads. When I called my grandmother the night I received the WROB fellowship, I laughed that I finally had good news for her.

She firmly informed me that I had good news for her all the time.

Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow

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