There’s a place where writers languish after signing with a literary agent and completing their first, polished, read-to-submit-to-publishers manuscript: Sub Hell – also known as the indeterminate amount of time that accumulates between your agent sending your manuscript out into the land of publishers and receiving a yay or nay in response.
While the sub process is unpredictable and completely unique to every writer going through it (as well as the majority of the manuscripts they complete), know that you’re not alone out there, wallowing in writing purgatory, wishing for a crystal ball – or at least a way to check in on an editor’s inbox. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to combating this remote terrain, but there are ways to maintain your mental health and writing trajectory during this necessary – and, let’s be honest, stressful – process.
I reached out to a variety of authors at different stages of their career. Some are already on the bestseller list; others are debut authors or writing their third or fourth book. One is transitioning from YA to adult – and the genres range from sci-fi to thriller. Each had a tip or trick to share to stay afloat during this often-solitary time.
Think of these ideas as starting points to build your own Sub Hell Survival Tool Kit. Some of these are tangible, but most aren’t. And remember: you’ll get through it eventually.
A new project to focus on
“Work, work, work. Bury yourself in another project until you forget that you have something on sub,” recommends Alex Temblador, 2022 debut author of Half-Outlaw.
The truth is that this is easier to suggest than do sometimes; however, getting excited about something else – whether it’s another manuscript or even a tangible home improvement project – will allow you to put the focus elsewhere for the time being.
Fresh air and the outdoors
Studies have found that being among the flora and fauna reduces stress, cortisol levels, muscle tension and heart rates. It can also be a necessary mental break that shatters the inevitable writer’s block that can coincide with Sub Hell.
“I go for a walk in the woods with my dogs and it helps me brainstorm. If I’m stuck on a plot point or need a solution to a corner I’ve written myself into, it usually doesn’t fail me. There’s something about movement, especially outside, that helps generate ideas for me,” says Christine Carbo, author A Sharp Solitude, The Wild Inside, Mortal Fall and The Weight of Night.
Social media and email blockers
This should go without saying, but this reminder from seasoned authors is sometimes necessary.
“Install internet blocking software on your computer so while you’re working on the next one, you can’t refresh your inbox,” suggests May Cobb, author of The Hunting Wives, My Summer Darlings and A Likeable Woman.
“A Ziploc baggie for suspending your phone in the toilet tank so you won’t be tempted to check email more than five times an hour,” adds Amy Gentry, author of Bad Habits, Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing.
And above all: “Take IG breaks, especially if you follow other writers who regularly announce their wins,” says Temblador.
Regular everyday distractions
You know, the stuff you have to do no matter what.
“Have a day job that takes up all your time and energy so you won’t have any time left to stress about sub,” suggests Yume Kitasei, 2023 debut author of The Deep Sky.
Or how about: “If you’re single, go on dates. The disappointment of the dating world will make editor turn-downs seem like nothing,” says Temblador.
New hobbies for potential diversion
If all of the above doesn’t work, have you tried basket weaving? Seriously, tackling a new hobby or immersing yourself in old favorites can do the trick.
“I enjoy making bookmarks. I love to create vision boards for my next projects,” says Van Hoang, author of Girl Giant and the Monkey King and Girl Giant and the Jade War.
Find a supportive tribe of fellow writers who understand what you’re going through
“Stay off social media, but join a small support group so you can commiserate. The most helpful thing is finding a writing buddy, hopefully close to the same publishing stage as you, to really go back and forth with on all things angsty–though this type of relationship takes time and is tougher to cultivate,” adds Hoang.
And finally: plenty of refreshments, which can be either a welcome distraction or bringer of good tidings.
“Wine is literally the only thing that helps,” says Catherine Ryan Howard, author of The Trap and 56 Days.
Cobb concurs by keeping “a pantry full of nothing but dark chocolate [and] a bathtub filled with gin (doesn’t have to be top shelf).”
For Jennifer Savran Kelly, 2023 debut author of Endpapers, her refreshment brought a bit of good luck: “When I was on sub with my debut, I knew an answer was forthcoming soon, so I bought myself a black-and-white cookie and decided it would either be a sadness cookie—to wash down the bad taste of rejection—or a happiness cookie—to celebrate acceptance! When a few days went by and I didn’t hear anything, I sat on my kitchen counter and began to eat my sadness cookie. While I was eating it, the phone rang and I got news of my acceptance, so it turned into a happiness cookie mid-bite!”
Above all, remember that you worked hard to make it to this level in the first place. Your book is as polished as it can be and currently in an inbox waiting to be reviewed. Don’t let this prolonged purgatory make you think otherwise. Every writer’s journey is different and comparing yourself to another isn’t a good idea. And try to follow Kitasei’s final suggestion: “Don’t read other people’s stories on the internet about their six-way auction in five days.”
This is just seven ways to survive Sub Hell. Anyone have any others?