When Being a Writer Means Playing the Waiting Game
By Katrin Schumann
You may have heard, these days many writers are waiting. Waiting to hear back from their overwhelmed agents. Waiting to hear from busy publishers. Waiting for Covid to really be OVER so they can do live book events again. Waiting for inspiration becuase they're exhausted by the last year and a half. Waiting because their release dates have been moved (again).
Even in pre-Pandemic times, waiting was part of the game when you're a writer. What should you do when you're forced to wait it out--should you push hard against the pause or should you accept your fate and lie fallow? That depends.
Personally, I had to really get my act together to push through Covid/ political malaise (to put it mildly) in order to finish a draft of my next novel. Tenaciousness was the key. Every day I turned up, even when the well was empty and even when the drains were backing up. Then, in December, I alerted my agent that I'd have a manuscript for her in the next month or two.
She promised me she'll get to my manuscript in August. "How does that work for you?" she asked as we had lunch in New York in June.
I wanted to say, "Um, not at all." But of course I didn't.
When agents are innundated with mansucripts, there's no point in pushing them to hurry. After all, when its your turn, you want them to give you all the attention and time you deserve. Agents are massively backlogged right now and it is what it is. Expressing frustration won't help things.
So... what should I have been doing (and keep doing) as I wait? Time off? Get on with the next project? Sometimes we need a break; I'm exhausted by my push to get this draft completed. So, I figure I'll take some time off from writing.
But we're writers and writers, well... they write. I went back to tinkering on my manuscript and found some typos and logic errors and have been slowly fixing those. This is part of the creative process for me. I'm sure there will be edits ahead and I'm thinking deeply if tangentially about the book. So no work is actually work, in a way.
When my debut novel, The Forgotten Hours, was out on sub, I found waiting to hear back from publishers excruciating. All advice says KEEP WRITING. Work on the next book. I couldn't so I didn't. It was my first book and I was paranoid, distracted and incapable of writing as I waited. Things feel a bit different now that I've published two novels. When this next one is out on sub (fingers crossed) I plan to launch into writing a new story to keep myself busy.
So the short answer here is: while waiting, do whatever you can to stay sane.
We also often have to wait while beta readers assess our drafts and that can take months. This feels to me like a healthy waiting period because at those early stages it's good to get a little distance from your work. Distance brings perspective and when you open up your draft again, you'll be seeing it with fresh eyes. This is invaluable.
Waiting for inspiration to strike is particularly challenging for writers. It can be painful to feel like you've run out of ideas or to be stuck on a project you can't seem to finish. I've been in both those situations. Sometimes, I plough through with the "butt-in-chair" philosophy (hence novel #3's existence). Turning up at your desk and trying and failing, day after day, can lead to a breakthrough (as dispiriting as the process can be).
Sometimes, however, you need and deserve a break.
We can't always produce on demand, and that's okay--unless you're under contract and have a deadline, that's a whole different story. Right now, as I wait to hear from my agent, I feel like I need to rejuvenate, to stop pushing myself so hard. So I'm taking a break from daily writing. It's time to look around, enjoy family and friends and a modicum of freedom, and stop the constant striving. It's time to fill the tank, see people and art and listen to music and be inspired. Time to rest a bit so I can work again.
You'll be forced to wait, too, as your publishing career progresses. How you handle those stretches will have a big impact on your sanity and productivity. Which is more important to you?
That's a trick question. As a writer, there's never a totally perfect balance between the two. Take the time to figure out what you need in the moment, and do it. As for me, as August approaches, I am eager and ready to roll up my sleeves again.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann
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