Zen and the Art of Manuscript Submission

On Friday, April 1st I came home from work, logged onto Facebook, and was reminded that it was the deadline for two of my fellow EMUs to send their revised manuscripts back to their editors. Those two are Natalie (whose panic surfaced here at EMU’s Debuts last week), and Mike, whose Facebook post for Friday looked like this:

I don’t usually derive joy from the pain of others, but I have to admit Mike’s post delighted me.  Three things seemed worthy of celebration:

1.  Mike is back on Facebook after his revision hiatus (Yay!!)

2.  Mike sent revisions to his editor right on schedule, a Herculean feat that keeps his book on schedule for publication! (Yay!!!!!)

3. Mike is even more uptight and neurotic about sending a manuscript off to his editor than I am (YAY!!!!!!!!!!!)

I know, Number 3 seems a little mean-spirited. No doubt some Mike Jung fans are crying in protest– “You’re the uptight neurotic one, not Mike!”  But consider my Facebook post of January 16, regarding a similar moment in my life:

You see? ! I granted myself a full 24 hours (8 of which I was asleep) before freaking out.

Okay. So what of it, you are asking. Sure, Mike’s a bit twitchy. Name me one writer who isn’t. Is the whole point of this post just to drag his good name through the mud?

Here it is--the manual we all need. I designed the cover, now who do we know who can actually write it for us???

Absolutely not.  I am writing this because these posts reveal a NEED.  We writers need a manual on Zen and the Art of Manuscript Submission.

Zen Buddhism centers on meditation as a means to peace and enlightenment. Meditation strips away the hectic surface of our lives to reveal a calmer, deeper place where the ultimate reality of unity, love, and boundlessness may be experienced. Just the sort of place one needs to seek out after hitting that send button or slipping that dog-eared manuscript in the mail.

The irony is that writing is a very Zen sort of thing, at least for me, but it leads to revision and ultimately to submission, which is SO NOT Zen. To clarify, allow me to employ the Jeannie Mobley Ten Point Scale of Zenosity, wherein 1 is all  hectic surface noise that keeps us from peace and truth, while 10 is Nirvana itself. Henceforth, I shall abbreviate this as the JMTPSOZ, which is admittedly a bad acronym, but a much worse hand in Scrabble.

So let’s evaluate these three parts of the writing process: Writing the First Draft, Revising for the Editor, and Submitting.

Writing the First Draft rates somewhere around 8-9 on the JMTPOSZ.  When I put pen to paper the noise and chaos recede and I sink into a deeper place. Hours pass unrecognized, words flow, threads of the story come together miraculously in ways I do not seek to understand. It is as if I am the instrument for a creative force greater than myself–it is the Zen of Writing. I re-emerge refreshed, deeply satisfied, reveling in my unity with the universe.

If writing is meditation, revision is work.  So the revision process sinks on the JMTPOSZ to a 4 to 5.  Note however, that we haven’t hit rock bottom here.  Revision can be hard, but it’s satisfying too. Not the deep, Zen, spiritual satisfaction, but more of the Protestant Work Ethic sort, wherein  accomplishment just feels GOOD! As long as I am blundering through the religious metaphors willy-nilly, this moment is more like the Conquering of the Wilderness–the Manifest Destiny of the acquired novel:

The Great Editor appeared and spoke thus to The Author, saying, “When thou hast made the changes writ herein, thou shalt find the promised land!”

And lo! The Author took from The Editor the Immense and Glorious REVISION LETTER and went forth, brandishing the Flaming Pen of Truth in one hand, and the Word Processor of Grammatical Accuracy in the other, and the unwashed hordes of characters with unclear motivations cowered before him! And when all was complete, the writer saw it was good, and offered up the glory of the Newly Revised Manuscript to the Great Editor, saying unto him,  “Here is the most dog-eared, incoherent, raggedy-ass revision the world has ever seen!”

That last line kind of killed the whole religious moment I had going there, didn’t it?  And that’s because that line moves us into the third phase.


Submission, whether it is to the agent, to acquiring editors, or to someone who already acquired the manuscript, it gets a negative 3 on the JMTPSOZ (I know, I just yanked you back to Buddhism. Think of this as sort of a fruit salad of religious philosophy.)

Submission is the part of the process that completely and utterly exposes us all to the most brutal noise and clutter in the world– the voices of self doubt and criticism that come shrieking in like Valkyries onto the bloodied battlefield of our creative minds (because what fruit salad is complete without some Old Norse Paganism?)

BUT here is my point, Mike (and anyone else who kept reading in the hope I might eventually have one):

Those Valkyries are illusions–their shrieks only empty noise. The deep, quiet place is still there-and as true as it ever was.

The time has come to rely on the Zen of Manuscript Submission. Please turn to page 3 and follow along.

Close your eyes, Mike. Breathe. Contract away from the noise, the clutter, the false voices that shout “you are a clueless, bumbling, bowl of neurotic Jell-O.”  All writers hear them. They are liars and fools (the voices, not the writers.)

Relax. Breathe.

Draw in a deep breath and say to yourself “Arthur will…”

Now let the breath out and say to yourself  “…love it.”

In breath: “Arthur will…”

Out breath: “…love it.”

“Arthur will…” on the in breath

“…Love it” on the out breath.

That’s it, Mike. Relax into it.

Okay, while Mike is doing that, I suspect the rest of you are thinking, she can’t REALLY know Arthur Levine will love it. Of course, you’re right. This is meditation, for heaven’s sake, it’s not fortune telling–and I don’t even know Mr. Levine.  But here’s what I can say with confidence, and what we all have to say when the submission panic starts to rise.

Our editors are our allies.

They may not love our revisions and may send us back to the drawing board (or writing desk), but if they do, it is because they are attempting to achieve the Zen of Manuscript Submission too.

Our editors acquired our manuscripts because they love the stuff we drew out of the deep places of truth.  In asking for revision they are helping us to peel away the noise and clutter so that the inner beauty can shine forth.

That’s right, Mike. Arthur Levine is your very own personal Zen Master. Fear not his opinion of your revisions, because even if he tells you they are incoherent, it is because he loves it.  Now one more time. Breathe.

Arthur will…

…love it.

And if that doesn’t make you feel better, resort to chocolate.


After writing this I logged back onto Facebook, and saw Mike’s post, with this new comment:

Okay, Natalie. Relax. Breathe.

“Emily will…” with the in breath.

“…love it,” with the out breath….


Filed under Editing and Revising, Publishers and Editors, Writing, Writing and Life

33 responses to “Zen and the Art of Manuscript Submission

  1. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Can we subtitle this post The Tao of Jeannie? 🙂

    I loved what you had to say, Jeannie, especially the parts where Arthur will love Mike’s revisions and Emily will love mine. 😉 (And the chocolate.) Even if this revision doesn’t turn out to be true love, you’ve given me hope that it’ll be somewhere on the path to true love.

    I must admit that I turned my revisions in a day late. On Thursday, I composed an email in which I asked Emily if I could turn the ms in Saturday instead of Friday. I’d just figured out a way to splice and rearrange the first 4 or 5 chapters differently, and the whole thing involved adding a new chapter. Plus, I wanted to redo this nifty chapter outline that she had done to show me which chapters had been unbalanced plot-wise.

    I swear, it took me 15 minutes before getting the courage to click send. Would she think I was unprofessional for not meeting the original deadline? Would she think I was a slacker? She wrote back right away with “Saturday will be fine. :)” (Smiley face hers).

    Thanks for reminding me that our editors acquire our stories because they love them and want to help us make them shine.


    • The tao of Jeannie? I don’t know, Natalie. If we add one more religion into the bowl, the mixed-metaphor police might just haul us all in!

      I love that your editor created an outline for you chapters! That sounds really helpful.


  2. Feeling calmer just reading this post, Jeannie! This is sage advice…and hysterical too. Thank you for it.


  3. L.B. Schulman

    Congratulations, Revising Emu’s! My palms are sweaty just reading Jeannie’s post so maybe I need to meditate with everyone. Jeannie, can you actually write the Zen book? I mean, it’s already got a cover so how hard can it be to just add a few little words, then revise, then have an editor want you to tweak it just an eensy, teensy bit?


  4. Cynthia Levinson

    Jeannie, you’re definitely on to something. Breathing must be the little black cocktail dress of writing. Just before I read your EMU post, I posted a Facebook note* that I took yesterday off from revising to let my manuscript breathe and, as a result, today I’m hyperventilating.

    I love your salmagundi religious hash. Maybe we can spice it up with a few more. Like Persephone, we descend to our deep inner worlds while revising before rising to light when we click ‘Send.’ Like Talmudic scholars, we question the meaning of every word… (Block that metaphor!)

    Great post, Jeannie!

    * Has anyone else noticed that English needs more synonyms for these new media? Is there another way to say, “I posted a post?”


    • Ha! You have to go back and look at what I just told Natalie about adding more religious metaphors!

      I was reflecting this morning on the Valkyries, and how they are really sort of the opposite of the muses–and that made me wonder why I didn’t manage to get that oft-cited group of goddesses into my post.

      Clearly, there is a good deal of ground to be plowed here.


  5. Hysterical, Jeannie! I think that you can inhale and exhale about the editor loving it during the revision process, but not in the actual submission phase.


    • Yes, but we have to TRY, Kristin! Thanks for your comments (and for the comma, so that you said Hysterical, Jeannie, as opposed to Hysterical Jeannie! which may also be true.) And thanks for the shout out on your blog as well!


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  7. Brava!
    Your post is an instant classic.
    It all comes down to trust in your editor, trust in yourself, and willingness to go another round of revisions if you have to.
    On my first book’s revisions I remember Melanie wanted me to get rid of one character, make a certain scene more intense, add 70 pages and make the youngest character Ellie’s brother instead of her cousin (among many other changes),
    I added more lines to the character so I wouldn’t have to delete him, added *another* new character, and made all the other revisions as requested.
    Next round of revisions: She told me *again* to get rid of that unneeded character, approved the new character, said the intense scene was now *too* intense, told me to take out 20 pages, and liked what I did with the little brother.
    I got rid of that character (held a little pretend funeral for him), made the intense scene less intense, took out 20 pages, and we went to print.
    I always have trouble breathing after sending in the first two rounds of revisions. After that we’re so close to publication that I don’t worry whether Melanie thinks I’m an idiot.
    (PS – that deleted character? I couldn’t resist bringing him back in the next book. In my head he marries the main character in 15 years)


    • Thanks for sharing the process, Ruth. I hope Mike and Natalie note that you had to go through that second round and it turned out something good–maybe that will help them breath a little more.

      I am not sure if it is encouraging or discouraging to know that breathing is difficult for you–you are such a wise, seasoned, and successful writer in my mind. I would like to think it gets easier with experience and success.


  8. Love. This. Post! A great way to start a busy week, thank you!


  9. Jeannie, this was fantastic! I have missed you in my life and I’m glad I’ve got you back.

    I have to say, our Zen modes are completely opposite. Writing a first draft is generally a 2 or 3 for me on the terrible Scrabble hand of your Zen scale. There is nothing for me worse than a blank page. With the exception of my most recent work which burst forth almost fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s mind (ha! how’s that for more fruit salad?), a first draft has to be dragged out of me painfully with long stretches of staring at whiteness while the little voice inside says, “You had this an hour ago when you were in the car and couldn’t write it down. The words were perfect then. Why can’t you do it now?”

    Revisions, however, are fun. Revisions are a game with challenge, delight, surprises, and strategies. I know what the point is and I know how to get there. I can work in little, manageable chunks. I can ask myself pointed questions: how do I get Character A from here to here? What do I do about this scene? Easy peasy. It’s doable, and I know I can do it. Hell, I already did it. I finished the first draft. Zen factor 8.

    It’s funny, though. When I was a lawyer and I worked on massive legal briefs that would really impact someone’s life, I was never as nervous about handing those up to my superiors for review, or even about filing them with judges. Yes, I had the confidence of knowing my stuff, and there’s a certain objectivity to the law (you know when you’ve got a “winner”), but also there wasn’t so much of ME in a brief. “This point is confusing and you’ve missed two important citations and go back and rework this” just doesn’t say “she hates me” in quite the same way.


    • Yes, Maryanne, I know other people like you as well, who find the first draft hard and revisions easier. I’ve always thought I need to find a way to fuse myself with one of those writers so that it would be Zen all the way through.

      I’m not sure if we’ll ever find anyone, though, that enjoys the “I just submitted it!” moment. (If that person is out there, leave a comment, so we can all know who to blow raspberries at!)

      Funny, I was a little worried I might offend someone with my religious philosophy muddle, but all the rest of you just keep piling it on!


  10. Mike Jung

    Arthur will…
    …not hate me for sending him such a godawful mess–NO WAIT, that’s not it.

    Arthur will…
    …not send a group of thugs over her to beat me up for my incompeten–AARGH, that’s not right, let me try again.

    Arthur will…
    …not revoke my contract. You know what, that’ll work for me right now. 😉

    Hey Jeannie, I LOVE this post! Thanks for all your words of encouragement and positive energy, they’re…sorta helping? Kind of? Maybe a little? Oh, they’re helping, my JMTPOSZ reading has probably climbed all the way back up to a flat zero, which is a big improvement on the -36 it was giving me last Friday…

    Also, congrats on sending your revision in too, Natalie! Woohoo!


  11. Jeannie,
    This post was well worth waiting all weekend for after your Facebook tease last week. I have to agree with your Zenosity scale. That first draft is meditative, and so my favorite part of the process, but the more I learn, the more fun revising has gotten over the years, at least after the first despair about the editorial suggestions has passed. I think I’d better go play some Wagner now and give those Valkyries some direction.


    • I agree, revising has gained favor as I have gotten better at it. I think having done a few revisions that turned out to be revelations for my whole writing process led me to look forward to revising more than I used to.

      You’ve given me an idea for a great new app here–someone needs to create a way for Flight of the Valkyries to play whenever we hit the “send” button to submit a manuscript–especially that part with the booming, dramatic bass line.

      Mike–if the meditation isn’t working for you, blast some Wagner and see if that helps!


  12. Pingback: Process :

  13. Hmmm…

    I spend most of my time on the other side of he fence, but it might work both ways. Let’s give this a try.

    My writers will not annoy hate me.

    My senior editors will stop complaining about plagues of locusts.

    My publisher will stop complaining about the annoying buzzing in her ears.
    Oh Wait… That’s her bluetooth headset. Phew.




    • Relax, Gwen. Breathe.

      “The senior editor….” with the in breath
      “….will love the plague of locusts…” with the out breath.

      I am sure it is an equally interesting picture from the other side of the desk. YOu should blog about that.


  14. Ah, Jeannie, this is perfect. I haven’t been through true novel revision Zen-topia yet and I trust my picture book revisions are not quite the religious experience. But for now my self-prescribed novel revisions are still meditative in nature. Bring on the editorial letter. I’m rested and ready to move into the next stage. Oops. I forgot I have to sell the darn thing first.
    Thanks for a great post.


    • And the problem with selling the darn thing, is that it involves a lot of submission. And no matter who the submission is to, it seems to bring out all that stinking self doubt! Uughh. I’l glad to hear, though, that you are rested and ready to move on. Gird your loins, girl, and get that manuscript out there! Then breathe.


  15. What a great post! I haven’t hit the editorial letter part of my journey yet, but I’m grateful that there’s Zen Guide for when I do. Actually, I think all of the Emudebuts posts are enlightening (Zen intended). As someone who’s a little behind you guys on this path, it’s such a gift to have a roadmap detailing the many joys and challenges ahead. That you guys do it with such grace, humor and sanity (for the most part) is all the more inspiring.


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