The Virtue of Patience

Hello, readers —

I’m taking a little break from my series on manuscript mega-problems and how to solve them to address one of the great irritations of a writer’s life: having to wait, often for long periods, for someone else to make a decision that has a vital impact upon your life.

Every writer who has ever queried an agent or submitted to a small press knows what I’m talking about, I suspect. You pour your heart, soul, and hopes into that submission, send it off — and then find yourself in a seemingly endless limbo, waiting to hear back. You tell yourself that agencies and publishing houses get stacks of submissions daily, so you should not expect yours to be read right away, but still you hope.

Then, as the days stretch into weeks (and sometimes, into months), you start to fantasize scenarios that explain the long delay, a natural impulse for a creative mind to have. If you were asked to send the first 50 pages or the whole manuscript, you might convince yourself that the agent just can’t make up her mind, and thus needs to have everyone in the agency read the submission, too, or that the editor at the small publishing house has taken the book home, so he can read through it again slowly.

You go through agonies, trying to figure out whether to call or not. But because every writers’ publication you have ever seen and conference speaker you have ever heard has told you that agents and editors positively HATE it when writers make follow-up calls, you sit tight.

As time passes, your fantasies start to take on a more sinister aspect. Maybe a fire broke out, and they’ve lost your address, along with half of your manuscript. (If only you’d put your e-mail address in the slug line, so the charred remains of every page would contain your contact information!) Maybe a first reader at the agency, an aspiring writer himself, was overcome with jealousy at your matchless prose and threw your manuscript away. (The jerk probably did not even recycle it. That type never does.) Maybe your protagonist reminded the agent so forcibly of her late husband, tragically lost a month ago in a freak ballooning accident, that she has not been able to make it through more than five consecutive pages without bursting into tears and needing to be carried bodily to her therapist’s office. Or, still worse, did you forget to send a SASE?

By now, you have bite marks on your hand from forcibly restraining yourself from picking up the phone to ask what’s going on with your manuscript.

In your heart (and from reading this blog), you know that it is far more probable that the delay is not a vacillation problem, but a lack of time: queries, excerpts, and entire manuscripts often languish on the corners of desks for months before the right people have an opportunity to read it. And if they like the first few pages, it is not uncommon for them to take it home, intending to read it in their spare time — where it has to compete with spouses, children, exercise, and all of the other manuscripts that made their way home.

All of this spells delay, and bless your heart, you try to be reasonable about it. Even when the pressure of waiting is migraine-inducing (for some reason that medical science has yet to pin down, writers seem more susceptible to migraines than other people; on the bright side, we seem to be far less susceptible to Alzheimer’s), you keep your little chin up.

And, if you’ve been at it awhile, you bitch to your writer friends about it — because, frankly, after years living with this kind of anxiety, your non-writing kith and kin have gotten a trifle impatient with your delay-induced stress. (If you have not yet discovered the balm of talking through your anxiety with someone who’s been through it herself, run, don’t walk, to your nearest writers’ conference to make some friends.) People at work start to ask, annoyingly, “Why do you put yourself through this?” Your partner suggests tentatively that if you took a third mortgage on the house, perhaps you could self-publish. Anything to end the stress.

But this is how the publishing industry works.

No matter how good your writing is, you must live through these long periods of nail-shredding anxiety. Actually, good writers have to put up with it more than bad ones, and professional writers more than unprofessional ones, because poor writing and poor presentation tends to get rejected at the speed of light. Literally: as soon as the first few sentences of a rejectable piece hit the retina of a screener, that manuscript is toast.

At the risk of depressing you into a stupor, these waiting periods do not go away once you have landed a terrific agent. Nor do they become substantially shorter or less stressful, a fact that has come as a surprise to every successfully published writer I know.

Think about it. Once you sign with your dream agent and whip your manuscript or proposal into fighting trim, the agent will send it out to editors — frequently waiting to hear from one before moving on to the next. Cast your mind back a few paragraphs ago, to all of the things that can distract an editor from reading a manuscript, and it may not surprise you to hear that even great writers with magnificent agents end up waiting for months to hear back from a single editor.

Then, once the editor decides she likes the book enough to acquire it, she has to pitch it to the rest of the publishing house. More delays.

And, as I can tell you from personal experience, great potential for stalling abounds after the publishing contract is signed. Many, many people need to approve each step, from the editor to the publisher to the copyeditor, proofreader, and marketing department. At any stage, the process could stall.

I am telling you this, not to discourage you, but so that you will not feel singled out. Long delays are not a reflection upon the quality of your writing, or even necessarily of its marketability, but rather a function of how the industry works.

Please, please, don’t beat yourself up about it — but do provide yourself with a support group of people who will understand and sympathize with your frustration. Because, like it or not, well-meaning folks who don’t know how the business works will keep peppering you with unintentionally cruel questions like, “So, when is your novel coming out?” They will be astonished when their friendly concern causes you to burst into tears, because some agent has been sitting on your first three chapters for the past nine weeks; other writers will be neither surprised nor blame you for it.

It’s a good idea to start building your support system long before you finish your first book, for otherwise, most of the people around you will have a hard time understanding that difficulty in attracting an agent, or your agent’s having trouble placing the book, is not necessarily a reflection of your talent as a writer. Once you do hook up with an agent, the friendly questions come even thicker and faster. In the popular mind, landing an agent or winning a contest automatically equals instant publication; I’m quite certain that people don’t mean to be nasty when they act as though the writer has done something wrong when the book does not sell right away, but that doesn’t mean their unspoken dismay does not hurt.

The important thing to remember is that while your work is about who you are, the way the industry treats writers isn’t.

When I was a kid, my older brother’s favorite joke was a shaggy dog story about an old man leading his heavily-laden burro from village to village across a long stretch of desert. Every time they near anything that looks remotely like a water source, the burro asks, “May I have a drink now?” Each time, the heartless old man replies, “Patience, jackass, patience.” My brother could keep the patter up for half an hour, weaving it through a lengthy and ever-changing tale about the old man’s adventures: at each stop, no matter where, the same question, the same response: “Patience, jackass, patience.”

What made the joke so appealing to a prepubescent boy bent upon tormenting his little sister, of course, was the ultimate pay-off: after so much repetition, the listener would eventually either express some wonder whether the story was ever going to reach its point, and then the teller could say, “Patience, jackass, patience.” Knowing the point, I tried my best to stay still, to say nothing, to pretend I didn’t even hear him, but eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. Even running away as fast as possible the moment he uttered the first line of the joke gave him the excuse to shout it after me: “Patience, jackass, patience!”

If only I had known that he was preparing me for a life as a writer. In the face of such relentless taunting, it honestly does take practice to sail through it all with one’s sense of humor intact. Although now, when editors or publishers or marketing people trap me in the same Catch-22 that my brother did, expecting me to wait wordlessly until they decide that the joke has ended, I have a professional advantage: I can sic my agent on ’em. Yet another reason to hook up with an agent you can trust.

Oh, and if an agency’s had your first 50 pages or entire manuscript for a month, it’s perfectly okay to call or e-mail; the rule of thumb is that you SHOULD call if you haven’t heard back in double the time that they specified. Mum’s the word when you’re querying, though, or if you sent an unsolicited manuscript.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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