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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Waiting Game

One of my authors recently forwarded the link to this piece by Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy to me. Her subject is waiting -- specifically, waiting for word back from one's editor. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Will the patient need major surgery or just a few band-aids? Kennedy, who has won numerous awards for her novels and short stories, describes the experience of waiting for her editor's response to her most recent book over the Christmas holiday:

I have never met anyone who even remotely enjoys this part of the book-producing process. I've been writing professionally since 1989, but this will only be my 13th book. (And let's ignore the implications of 13.) This is only the 13th time that I have footled about, gone for walks, tried to start other things, sketched hollow-sounding plans for the coming months, stared blackly at the ceiling and generally failed to avoid the constant, low-level nausea generated by waiting to hear. I woke up in the morning and waited, I prodded at lunch and waited, I watched [Sherlock] Holmes ... and still I waited. For those of you unfamiliar with the heady emotional tumble drier which is the post-handover-pre-verdict hiatus, try to imagine one of those insultingly-lengthy TV elimination round pauses which somehow elongates over days or weeks, blends with your driving test outcome, the announcements of every important exam result upon which you have ever relied, every time you've asked someone lovely to have a coffee, or hold you hand, or subject you to intimate forms of relaxation and every naked-on-the-roof-of-Sydney-Opera-House-while-your-parents-and-in-laws-and-primary-school-teachers-render-you-in-watercolours anxiety dream you've ever had. Only it's less pleasant than that.

Only 13 books? Oh, my.

Kennedy's piece (the above is a small excerpt) started me thinking about all the periods of waiting that each finished manuscript demands of a writer. There's waiting for word back from whatever trusted readers you show it to for feedback; waiting for word from your agent -- or from the many agents to whom you submit it if you don't already have one; waiting for word back from all the editors that your agent submits it to; waiting to hear how the acquiring editor likes all the rewrites he or she undoubtedly suggests; waiting to hear what reviewers and the world at large (not to mention your mother, spouse, college roommates, and old flames) think of the finished book. And those are just some of the Major Milestones of Waiting. There are plenty more.

Which adds a whole new layer of meaning to "It's the journey, not the destination."


  1. Nan--you left one out. Waiting to get those editorial notes. And from my recent experience, that can be the longest wait of all these days.

  2. Right. And then there are all the production milestones, and the more fun kinds of waiting, like waiting to see the jacket design and waiting for endorsements. It seems it's a never ending process with which one must simply make peace. And if you can use the time productively, so much the better.

  3. This is why publishing on your own is such a relief. A writer can be entirely focused on her writing. The packaging is developed to meet the image she has carried the entire time the writing was going on. (For me, books start with the image and so often conventional publishers' packages are dissonant.)
    No waiting. No one else's agenda. It brings the author back to what writing is all about--creation.

  4. Not so long ago, the law of publishing etiquette was that you were supposed to send a proposal or manuscript to one agent or editor at a time. (Today multiple submissions are the norm.) Imagine the torture of having to wait weeks to hear from one agent before being able to try a second . . . then waiting again before trying a third . . .

  5. There are still some agents who request (read:insist on) an exclusive look at a proposal or manuscript. I suppose that wouldn't be so bad if they got back to the authors within a few days, but too often it takes longer.