There is a liminal space between writing and written; between written and published. You are writing – forming words into worlds, thoughts into fables, daydreams and nightmares into real places and times and people. Once you finish, you have written, and the fledgling idea is now fully formed – except it isn’t. A second, third, eighteenth pair of eyes must look over what you created and let you know if the structure holds, if the world you spun out of tiny strands will bear its weight.
Sounds rather metaphysical when you think about it. But the process has become metaphysical in my brain, probably fostered by years of Catholic schools and nuns. The first time I sent a story out on sub, well for one thing I had no idea what I was doing. But I also didn’t know the process. I did it all wrong, submitted it way before it was ready, and was rejected rather quickly. I took my time with the second story. I understood the need for beta readers (which is a completely different essay), had the formatting correct on my manuscript, followed the submission guidelines to the letter.
And three weeks later, was rejected again. That was okay – Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? I did some more research, found Submission Grinder, looked at the charts and the lead-times for acceptances and rejections, and thought “Why does this take so long?” More research (I am a professionally-trained reference librarian after all, and that’s what I do) into the sheer number of submissions a market might receive. I think everyone in lockdown must have decided to write a book or a story!
I wrote a couple more stories, sent them out, then started doomscrolling my email. I couldn’t get myself past that – because maybe the acceptances go out after the morning meeting, or after lunch or before close of business. Maybe there is a time zone factor. It didn’t matter. I found myself stuck, waiting.
And that’s when I named it Writer’s Limbo – the time when it is out of your hands and your creation depends on the kindness of strangers to get you through to the promised land.
There are many – MANY – Limbos standing in between an idea and publication. Drafting and writing is too active, so is revising (which I actually enjoy). For me the first Limbo is the beta reader, critique group, workshop, or whoever provides feedback. The story gets sent over, and you immediately want to call, DM, text, email and say “well? Well?” You can’t move forward; you dare not submit it for fear of an egregious error.
And then you get your feedback and you are out of Limbo. They didn’t hate it! You make the changes you think work, run it through the spell and grammar check, find a likely market on Submission Grinder, and send it off convinced you have crossed your T’s and dotted all your I’s. Major markets can seem to take an eternity to respond though. Now you’re not just doomscrolling your email; you’ve added the graphs and market reports from Submission Grinder into the rotation. Is your little black dot still out in the all-purple zone or has the red created a frame around it? Is it significant that the listing in your subs has gone from black to orange?
Does the market wait to read submissions once their window closes or are they reading from day one? Did they change editors mid-way through the call? Will the Kickstarter get funded? A special Limbo is a shortlist notice. Yay, you made the shortlist! Damn, that’s going to add another month or three to the wait.
Even worse, the “If you don’t hear from us in 90 days, consider it a pass” call. Hate those! My weirdly wired brain has now decided I will no longer play with those because they just take too much out of me. Way too much stress, and I’m ill-equipped to handle it. I need a firm resolution!
But what if it’s a book? I don’t know if waiting three – four months on a query to find out if an agent wants a full; three – four months to get a response on the full; four – six – nine months on submission to publishers is something I’m equipped to handle either, but I’m giving it my best shot. It may be Limbo; it may be one of the Circles of Hell. There is no other way to get there, though. The gatekeepers control the journey.
I can’t comment on self-publishing and its liminal spaces. I imagine they exist.
So what can one do to manage their time in Limbo? Everyone says you should start on the next project. Literally – everyone says that. A mind-clearing walk can get you through an afternoon, but you need to get started on the next thing! It’s hard!
I had the pleasure of having Neil Gaiman answer a question I submitted at one of his appearances last month. I asked him point blank:
“Other than starting the next project, what advice do you have for a new writer about dealing with the wait? That time between submission and the answer?”
It took him all of two seconds of thought to tell me that there isn’t anything else to do (and I’m paraphrasing here) “When you finish Project A you move onto Project B or Project C until you find one that will keep you interested…”
So yeah. The only way to manage Limbo is to accept its existence and recognize where you are when you get there. How do I manage it? Not well, not yet, but I work at it every day. When all else fails, I write blog posts…