I had intended to post another installment in my series on getting good feedback today, but I have to say, some of the holiday cards I’ve been receiving from writers over the last couple of weeks have given me pause. Why, you ask? Well, I am lucky enough to know writers at every stage of the process: published, unpublished, agented and unagented, living and dead. And while the living are marginally more likely to drop me tidings of their work around this time of year, I’ve noticed that whether the writer in question is just beginning a book or just finishing one, just starting the querying process or fifteen years into same, waiting to hear back from editors or agents, fulfilling a book contract, promoting a book, or in the throes of her eighth, every single one expresses the same longing: to have more control over how quickly the process goes.
Because, really, can any of us quite believe just HOW long it takes?
So today, the for my last post of 2007, I am going to address one of the great irritations of a writer’s life: the stress of having to wait, often for long periods, for someone else to make decisions that have a vital impact upon your life and your art.
Every writer who has ever queried an agent, submitted to a small press, or entered a contest is familiar with this peculiar species of stress, right? 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.
And you wait quietly, because you have heard (accurately) that there’s nothing an agent or editor hates more than being contacted by a nervous writer demanding, “Well? What do you think?” As the days pass, you tell yourself that agencies and publishing houses get stacks of submissions daily, and contests get a lot of submissions, so you should not expect yours to be read right away.
But still, you hope that today, TODAY will be the day when that blasted suspense will end.
Then, as the days stretch into weeks (and sometimes into months), you might 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.
Or perhaps a small dragon came bursting into the agency, breathing fire upon the waiting manuscripts, and the agent who loved your pitch at the conference was just too embarrassed to tell you. Rather than forcing Millicent to patch together all of those scorched fragments, you might reason, wouldn’t it be easier if you just sent another copy? Maybe it would be a kindness if you called to check.
Whatever your reasoning might be, 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 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 every page would have contained 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. Yet in your heart (and, in some cases, from reading this blog), you know that none of the elaborate explanations you’ve concocted are very likely to be true, right?
99.9% of the time, if the author has not heard back, the submission has not been read yet. (The other .1% of the time, the submission has been lost AND hasn’t been read.)
When it’s your manuscript out there, it’s tough to remember that delay is very seldom 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 an agent or editor likes the first few pages, it is not uncommon for her to take it home, intending to read it in her 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.)
It doesn’t take long before you find yourself wishing that you hadn’t, in your joy at being asked to submit material, spread the good news quite so widely. Within a remarkably short time after you’ve started to arrive at work with big dark circles under your eyes, coworkers will start to ask, annoyingly, “Why do you put yourself through this?” Your mother worries audibly about your health and sanity. Your partner suggests tentatively that if you took a third mortgage on the house, perhaps you could afford to self-publish. Anything to end the stress.
But allowing writers to languish while minds are made up is, as we know, is how the publishing industry works. No matter how good your writing is, if you’re in it for the long haul, you must live through these long periods of nail-shredding anxiety.
Actually, good writers generally 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. (Hello, Christmas card list.)
Because, alas, reading speeds do not increase as a manuscript inches along the road to publication. 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.
I tremble to tell you this, but as I can tell you from personal experience, equally 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 — or you could be asked to make a major revision at any point between the editor’s first read of your manuscript and when it is actually printed. It’s not unheard-of, for instance, for an editor to leave a publishing house mid-project, landing a book with a new editor with an entirely different opinion about how it should read. Or even — are you sitting down? — for an author whose book garners poor advance reviews (the industry-specific reviews that come out long before the book is available for sale to consumers) to be asked to make revisions THEN.
In this business, a book is not finished until it is actually sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble, a fact that has had writers gnawing the bark of nearby trees in frustration for my entire lifetime, at least.
Why am I darkening the last day of 2007 by telling you this? So that in 2008, you will not fall into the trap of thinking that delays are a negative review of your writing.
Long waits 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. So please, please, don’t beat yourself up with worry in the dead of night — but do provide yourself with a support group of people who will understand and sympathize with your frustration.
Because, as I pointed out just before Christmas, 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.
That’s why 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.
You can tell yourself that 20 times a day while you’re waiting to hear back, 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 at a time, 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.”
Naturally, what made the joke so appealing to a prepubescent boy bent upon tormenting his little sister was the ultimate pay-off: after so much repetition, the listener would inevitably either express some wonder whether the story was ever going to reach its point. And then the teller could chide her: “Patience, jackass, patience.”
After the first telling (out of, if my recollection is correct, approximately 4700), 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 — and without beginning to wonder what one could possibly have done in this lifetime or the last to deserve such slow torture.
Trust me, neither you nor your book has done anything to deserve it: it’s merely that the timing of acceptance or rejection is utterly, completely, excruciatingly out of the writer’s control.
Oh, and if an agency’s had your first 50 pages or entire manuscript for a couple of months, it’s perfectly okay to call or e-mail; the manuscript might genuinely be one of the .1% that has gotten lost, and if you wait much more than 3 months to follow up, the chances of their finding it are slim to none. (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, or if you’re dealing with one of those annoying agencies that tells submitters up front that they will respond only if the answer is yes.
Happy New Year, everybody, and keep up the good work!