Hang on a minute — writing is a waiting game

Perhaps somewhere there is a cogent essay by William James or Mark Twain about waiting, but I’ve never seen it. And this seems strange to me because one part of the writer’s life that seems to be a constant is waiting for responses on what has been written. You hear about actors waiting for the phone to ring and how excruciating that can be for them. But consider this: actors, at least when they’re plying their trade and often when they’re auditioning will get feedback in real time. Whether the feedback is positive or negative is another matter. Writers, who often are very private individuals, might not have the courage to get such instant feedback. But if they want it, they don’t get it.  Writers are always waiting for the phone to ring. It is a part of the job, full time.

You write paragraph after paragraph with only an imaginary audience before you. Finish the job, and you may have some private readers who’ll take pity on you and look through the work. If you have a writer’s group,they may look at the prose and get back to you in less than a geological age. But, in my experience, friends and colleagues don’t rush to read your latest draft. You wait for them, sometimes in vain. (Collaborators are a different matter, which is one reason why I’m enjoying novel writing Susan.)

One kind of waiting is relatively new for me. I simply avoided it in the past. This is taking a manuscript and putting an aside before revisions. That can’t be a problem if you never do it. And for a long time, I didn’t. What would I see next month that I couldn’t see today? A lot, as it turns out. There really is value to letting a manuscript “cool down.” This self-imposed wait is now part of the mix for me.  I’m still trying not to be grumpy about it.

And consider what happens next: You take that finished manuscript, and you send it out to someone who has the authority to buy it. When I first started writing, there is only one way to deal with this. A self-addressed stamped envelope was the link between writing and feedback. Okay, so we’re talking snail mail. How bad could that be? Pretty bad. I don’t recall ever getting feedback from any editor in less than six weeks. I’d say six months was more the norm.

Today of course, there are some publications (although these don’t tend to include most of the prestige, high paying markets) that will except electronic submissions. There is an improvement here, for sure. The last story I had accepted got a response in 23 minutes. To a writer, this is about as immediate as can be imagined. (I did have one story that was read in a workshop with an editor present. After getting the usual mixed review from my peers, the editor gave a positive response and ended his critique with, “and I’d like to buy it.” That may hold the record for quick feedback for me.)

But although the response in the electronic world can be fast, it usually isn’t. As I look back through my notes, I find that typically I don’t hear back from an editor and less than two months. So the electronic world saves me stamps and a little bit of time, but the experience of waiting for feedback hasn’t much changed.

Nonfiction, of course, is different. Often sales are made on proposals. The promise of a check and seeing your work in print will precede the actual writing. The waiting experience is tied mostly to getting reactions from audiences. With my current book, Innovation Passport, there’s a different layer of waiting. I need to get PR and legal approvals. There’s a special agony associated with that, especially, as is true right now, when PR is saying that perhaps they will block the publication of an 82,000 word manuscript. I’m not sure how common this experience is. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

In any case, fiction involves a similar wait for audience reaction. and I think that the response to fiction is always a mystery. How your story will connect or not connect with readers can’t really be predicted. For my own work, people seem to either like it or hate it. And the same people who really like one story are apt to really dislike another. And vice versa.

Okay. So writers have a lot of opportunity for waiting, waiting, waiting. How do you handle it? The classic answer is to get to work on something else. And I have to say, having a lot of material in the pipeline can be wonderfully distracting. Works in progress, manuscripts “cooling” and the number of pieces in the hands of editors at the same time does help. At the very time that you send out the latest story that you know everyone will love as much as you do, you get a response back about one of your earlier favorites. It hardly matters whether the note from the editor is an acceptance, a rejection or one of those nice letters that tells you that you just missed and they’d love to see more. It’s a reaction, and it really shifts the focus so that a new work can be done.

So, is the secret to overcoming the problem of waiting as simple as this? Not really. it’s just a balm that keeps the itching from driving you crazy. No matter what, I think a writer maintains contact with the works that have gone out into the world.  It’s not much different from being a parent whose thoughts return to the kids every day, even after they’re grown and out of the house. I’m used to this. It’s part of the package. But this last week or so has been one of the toughest for waiting because a number of things hit their due dates almost simultaneously.

By the end of last week, I was supposed to get feedback on a couple of short stories and the four plays. I also had a commitment from PR for an answer on the book, and I only got half an answer, which was tentative. The waiting experience was further exacerbated by purported deadlines in non-writing areas. I was supposed to hear about a job interview and about my admission to some graduate courses. All this was not simultaneous. Deadlines passed in and out like sniper fire. And I wasn’t very good at keeping my head down.

Some of the issues have resolved. Most are still pending, with a few late enough to require my sending out some plaintive e-mail. Waiting, waiting, waiting. For all the groaning about writer’s block, I think this is the worst part of the writer’s life. Ultimately, both waits and blocks are mind games, or rather mind puzzles that it’s up to the professional to solve. It’s humbling to realize, at this late stage of my career, that this is still a problem for me. But it’s good to have articulated it and have a better understanding of what’s in play. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be keeping my eyes open to see how other writers have dealt with the problem of waiting.

Note: Due to popular demand (or dreams thereof), I’ve added a listing of my more recent published/accepted fiction to the About Peter Andrews page.  I’ll put a bit on nonfiction real soon now.

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