Querying and Mental Health: Part 2
Coping strategies for the rollercoaster ride
In my last post, I talked about why writing, and especially querying, take such a toll on your mental health. So how to handle the stress?
Here are some tips for trying to retain, regain or magic up out of nowhere a tiny modicum of chill throughout the brutal angst of querying. Not all of these will resonate, but hopefully there's a little something for everyone.
I don't think I managed many, if any, of these myself, but they are the kind of things I would tell my pre-querying self with the benefit of hindsight (under no illusion whatsoever that I would listen to my future, smugly agented self, mind you).
Spoiler alert: none of the feelings, worries or fears magically disappear when you finally sign with an agent. So maybe that's a good place to start.
Don't put all your mental health eggs in one basket
It makes a huge difference to have someone on your side who believes in your writing and wants to help you get it published - of course it does. But don't delude yourself that all your problems will be solved once you've conquered querying because there's always another rollercoaster to navigate: going out on submission, maybe even realizing that things aren't working out with your new agent... Signing with an agent will become, if it's not already, an all-consuming obsession. But if you can keep it in perspective and remember it's not the Magic Key to Everything in the Universe, you'll find the journey easier.
Carve out querying time
Decide on an amount of time you want to devote to querying and stick to it. It will be different for everyone and you don't have to justify it, but make it reasonable. Define 'reasonable' based on your life and your other commitments, not on how quickly you want to become agented. And test it by asking yourself what you would advise a friend to do. Whether it's an hour a week, two days a month or anything else, the important thing is to have a guideline that will allow you to make progress with your querying without dominating your life and your headspace. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is.
Make your goals achievable
It's much better to give yourself a time slot than it is to give yourself a target based on the number of queries you want to send out per week, and the reason for this is simple. Ten queries might take 3 hours. Or 3 days. By policing the time you spend instead of the number of queries you send, you'll be able to keep a better grip on reality and ensure you have time to do all the other important things that need doing.
Respect your boundaries
Once you've decided on the time you're going to dedicate to querying, be strict with yourself. The boundaries are there for a reason. Even though you think you might reach your goal quicker if you just keep going for another hour, there is real danger that it will become unhealthy if it eats into other areas of your life. Remember, balance is important.
Monitor yourself. Be aware of the gremlins invading your mind. Watch out for headaches, eye strain and that feeling of emptiness that comes on when you're not making any traction and have just wasted half your allotted time scrolling through pages of information but haven't learned anything useful. Ask yourself regularly, am I being productive? And most importantly, be honest with yourself.
Nature is a healer
No matter how much time you're spending on querying, don't forget that stepping outside can do wonders for your state of mind. Do some gardening, go to the beach, walk in the woods, splash in puddles. Breathe.
Aside from the outdoors, don't forget to make time for other things that make you feel good. Take a bath. Take some exercise. Spend time with your loved ones. Ask for support if you need it. Reach out to your writing family online. Get your worries out in the open, even if it just means writing them down - allowing them to build up inside you will almost certainly lead to lack of sleep. And sleep is your friend.
Cushions and barriers
Collect all the most uplifting positive comments you've received about your writing, print them out and keep them where you can see them. Remind yourself that you actually WROTE A BOOK and that in itself is an enormous achievement. Consider building walls that will protect you when you're feeling particularly vulnerable. For example, you might want to create a separate email account for querying and check it only when you're feeling strong. Use anything that works for you to soften the blows.
Build your goals around things that you can control. Don't tell yourself you must get a certain number of full requests by this time next week or sign with an agent by the end of this year. Don't torture yourself with other people's hit rates (you know, the ones who say 'I sent out 20 queries last night and had 14 full requests in my inbox this morning'!). Don't measure your success or the quality of your writing by these kind of meaningless metrics. Finding an agent is a matter of good luck, good timing and serendipity as much as anything else. Remind yourself of that often.
Allow yourself to feel
There will be downs. More downs than ups. Don't pretend it doesn't hurt. Don't put on a brave face. Feel the sadness and desperation and fear and hurt and inadequacy. Give yourself time to process the emotions. Turn them into fuel to bounce back stronger, if you can. Give yourself a break.
Some rejections will hurt more than others
Whether it's an agent you feel a particular affinity with, an MSWL that describes your novel exactly, or you're just feeling vulnerable for some other reason at the time you receive the rejection, some will really sting. Other times you'll be like, meh... whatever. Sometimes you'll be surprized by your reaction. Whatever it is, it's totally fine. You already know you have a lot of rejections ahead of you. Even once you've signed with an agent. Even after you've got a book deal. Roll with the punches whatever way you can.
Find out what works for you
I learned pretty fast that I needed to have 'active' queries (i.e. ones that hadn't been rejected yet) to buffer the sting of rejections. If there was still hope out there, the no's didn't feel so bad. Pitch events and short story contests are great - but they can also be draining and demoralizing. In many ways, they detract focus and energy from the main game. Pace yourself and don't feel pressured to participate in anything if you haven't the time or headspace to do it well or to handle disappointment.
One of the most important sanity-savers for me was continuing to write and work on other projects. It's hard to force your mind to focus, but think of it as a positive step forward. If the manuscript you're querying doesn't fly, it's good to have the next one ready to send out sooner rather than later. If you're a kidlit writer, try writing for a different age group to engage your brain in new learning. Picture books are a wonderful place to start if you're a novel writer, and vice versa. Completely different skill sets.
Confidence builds you up, doubt knocks you down
So seek out tasks, activities and people that give you confidence and avoid those that fill you with doubt. This relates to all areas of your life, not just writing, and is a good rule to live by always. But it will never be more important than when you are querying. You need every little boost available (and will feel every little knock more than usual).
You are in control
At any time, YOU can relieve the pressure on yourself. Stop querying. Stop scrolling. Stop checking. Stop worrying. Stop obsessing. You have the power to let up on yourself. Yes, you really do.
But you are only in control of you
However much angst you feel, however many hours you put in, you cannot control other people's actions and reactions. You can give it your very best shot by writing the best work possible, but then you have to relinquish the power to the querying gods and the whims of agents. Think of your queries as little wishes - release them into the world and let them go. Whatever comes back to you is a gift.
Give yourself permission to quit
There will be times when you question everything, when you don't think you can face another emotional beating, when you lose hope, when you stop believing it will happen. Remember this is not the most important thing in your life. You can come back to it when you feel stronger. Your dreams will still be there in a month, six months, a year... It's okay to stop doing something that's hurting you.
WRITING, SIGNING WITH AN AGENT, BECOMING A PUBLISHED AUTHOR... these are all worthy goals, valid dreams and I know you feel them deep in your soul and you never want to let them go.
BUT NONE OF THEM ARE AS IMPORTANT AS YOU.
NONE OF THEM ARE AS IMPORTANT AS YOUR MENTAL HEALTH.
Please remember this. Be kind to yourself.